There was a time in my practice when I wanted to do everything. I would meditate, chant, follow the eight precepts during an Uposatha day, design a very special shrine with all the proper objects, and read the Dhamma so I could have meaningful discussions with others about the Buddha’s teaching.
Yeah, I know. That lasted like maybe a month. And I almost gave this whole Buddhist thing up. After all, I like to drink and eat meat and I wasn’t too keen on giving those up. And sex? Even meaningless serial sex?
But I always came back to the fact that Buddhism saved me.
“Wait a minute, saved you? Isn’t that what Jesus freaks say? Born-again Christians? That’s what they say.”
You’re right, that’s what they say. But that’s not what I mean. Someday, I will go into the sordid details of what brought me to Buddhism, but not now. All that I need to say is that Buddhism did save me. It saved me because it showed me how I fucked up my own life, AND it showed me how I could fix it. It was my responsibility. And unlike the born-again Christian, there wasn’t a Santa Claus out there to fix things for me; I had to do it on my own.
Disclaimer alert! I’m still trying to fix things. But I digress.
I believe that many of us find something very special in Buddhism that immediately connects with us, and that is what draws us to the teachings. But I also understand how many get burned out by their practice. I was almost there. Because it’s easy to slip into this mode of doing everything Buddhist to the point that, by god, I’m gonna let everyone know I’m a goddamned Buddhist and they ain’t gonna give me any shit about it.
It’s very much like coming out. In my early out-of-the-closet years I wore a pink triangle lapel pin on my suits (there was a time when I dressed in a suit and tie every day for work, and let me tell you, I was very stylish!). On National Coming Out Day one year, I wore a T-shirt to work with my blazer that proclaimed “Nobody Knows I’m Gay.”
Nobody at work said anything about the shirt either.
But that didn’t stop me. I turned into a dancing circuit boy who bought all the right clothes (even if I couldn’t afford it – hey, that’s what credit cards are for) and who marched in all the right parades. I attended a vigil on the day it was revealed that Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left for dead tied to a split rail fence in the cold dark expanse of the Wyoming prairie. I gave the right speech. I spoke at an alternative school about being gay. And I wrote columns for a local newspaper advocating for gay rights. I decorated my apartment with all the right gay symbols and icons. And I finally accepted the fact that, yes, I really did like Barry Manilow.
I’m not saying any of those activities are bad or were a waste of time. All I’m saying is that I caught the fever. I caught the fever when I found Buddhism too, just like a lot of folks. And just as I mellowed in my gay world, I mellowed out in my Buddhist world too. And what happened was I began to practice in a manner the Buddha describes to Bhaddali in the Bhaddali Sutta (MN 65).
This sutta primarily is concerned with how the monastic code was developed, but within this text is the simile of the young thoroughbred colt. In general, this simile describes how a skilled horse trainer is very methodical when training a colt. The trainer takes very concrete and deliberate steps, and does not advance the colt until it has sufficiently adapted to the current step. For example, the trainer puts a bit into the colt’s mouth. The colt rebels against this initially, but eventually comes to accept the bit and calms down.
Our practice is like that. When we attempt something like meditation for the first time, our mind rebels; it doesn’t want to sit still. But with determined practice, eventually it does. And just like the unbroken colt, if we try too many things at once with our practice, we will fail, just as the colt will totally freak out and the horse trainer will be forced to give up.
So when I felt like I was being overwhelmed by my new practice, I selected a few very basic behaviors to focus on: A daily meditation practice in which the goal was just to sit for 20 minutes a day, and to do something for others. For the second part, I travelled to my new-found Sangha to help them build a new meditation hall. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
Now my meditation is more focused. I’m actually at a point where I can sustain a deliberate thought. And that is an interesting breakthrough, about which I will be blogging soon.
Here's an idea. I am asking all of you – my readers, both loyal and occasional – to offer up some ideas for me to write about in this blog. Make your suggestion by leaving a comment. React with a comment to someone else’s suggestion by either concurring with the suggestion, or adding another dimension to it.
It’s not that I am without ideas. Rather, I’m just interested in what the rest of you have been pondering, what the rest of you have been dealing with, or what interests you whether it’s from a gay perspective or just from the level of what others think about the Dhamma and how that is manifested in his or her practice. Or my practice, for that matter.
This, of course, carries some risk. I am not a monk, nor a recognized teacher. I’m just a middle-aged gay man trying to find my way through this dukkha-filled world filled. How I respond to any suggestion, what I end up writing in a post may turn out to be absolutely unskillful. But I’m fairly certain should that be the case, someone will be sure to point that out.
This won’t divert me from writing future posts that I have already established a path toward covering, such as each item within the Noble Eightfold Path – with a gay twist, of course.
So be bold, be daring. But also be empathetic, compassionate and act with equanimity.
Just before waking this morning, I had funny dream that caused me to chuckle when I opened my eyes. There was this many-legged arachnid-like creature on the floor in my apartment. It had numerous flailing arms with menacing pinchers like a scorpion’s, but the many legs reaching out from the central body was more like a daddy longlegs on steroids. There was even a resemblance with one of those giant crabs they catch in the deep waters near Alaska. Topping off this creature's comical look was an expressive face that was probably pulled from my subconscious recollections of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Anyway, this “spider” would swing several of its arms madly about while jumping upward to spin like a demonic kung fu fighter. I, in the dream, was intent on staying just far enough away from this thing so it wouldn’t jump on me to bite or sting or whatever this beast would do. I managed to back it into a corner potted plant where I then began stabbing and crushing this creature with a vacuum cleaner extension tube. Go figure.
As I said, when I awoke, I chuckled at the silliness of this dream. I sensed that my creature was some kind of conglomerate of many things built upon the theme of the jumping spider that resides around my desk in my office at work. This little bugger has taken up residence in my office and I have allowed it to share my space. But shortly after this dream, I began to feel remorse. Did I really need to kill that kooky creature in my dream? Why am I afraid of spiders in general? I really don’t like spiders much; my initial reaction upon seeing one is to squash the thing. And yet, I am fascinated by these bugs.
I’m not sure if one creates kamma in their dreams, but I’m fairly certain that dreams are mixed-up representations of the kamma we create in our waking life. All of this brought once again to the surface some thoughts I’ve been having about the First Precept – to refrain from killing living creatures – and its connection to how we treat animals in general.
There is a story in the Udana that tells of the Buddha observing a group of boys beating a snake with a stick. From this vignette we have the Buddha saying this:
“Whoever takes a stick to beings desiring ease, when he himself is looking for ease, will meet with no ease after death.
Whoever doesn't take a stick to beings desiring ease, when he himself is looking for ease, will meet with ease after death.”
There have been a few recent stories out of the Toledo, Ohio, area about folks shooting dogs and the dogs surviving despite some critical injuries. They are heart-wrenching to some degree, like this one in which a couple go out of their way to kidnap a neighbor’s dog before they shoot it several times, the dog later crawling back to its home where it collapses.
Reading comments attached to these stories we see a common reaction: that there must be a special place in hell for people who treat animals like this. It is a fairly universal reaction among humans. It is also fairly common for folks to decry the sentences following conviction of people who do things like this to animals as being too lenient; animal abuse – even horrific animal abuse – is often a misdemeanor offense that carries little to no jail time and insignificant fines.
Yet, the Buddha recognized that if a person cannot respect other animals, even if a person kills animals to feed his or her family, such a person will not respect other humans. Perhaps it is no coincidence that many serial killers have past histories of killing and torturing animals. That’s not to say that every person who kills or tortures an animal will become a serial killer, but it is a fact that almost all serial killers began with animals before moving on to people.
I had a moment of clarity about this subject when I was 16. I had been a hunter of sorts in my teens, although a very unsuccessful one. I had gone bird and rabbit hunting before equipped with a shotgun. It’s hard to miss with a shotgun, but I often did. I also had a .22-caliber rifle, a single-shot with a scope. One August afternoon, I had walked to a sand pit where I set up some paper targets to practice my shooting and adjust the scope on the rifle. It was kind of boring, I suppose, and I was distracted by the repetitive chattering of a nuthatch in a tree nearby. Nuthatches are small birds – no more than 4 inches or so from beak to tail – with a quirky behavior of walking upside down on a tree, or climbing down head-first; they are the only bird I am aware of that does this.
I took aim at this bird, got its head in the crosshairs of the scope, and squeezed off a shot. The bird fell from the branch to the ground. I walked over to the bird to see where I had shot it; I wanted to know if my scope was sighted properly. The nuthatch was still alive, my shot had cut across its breast just enough to sever its breast muscles so it couldn’t fly, but not enough to damage any internal organs or kill it. I looked at it on the ground in the leaves rapidly breathing; for a brief second, I felt as though the bird and I had made eye contact. It made no sound. I crushed its head with the butt of my rifle.
I returned to my spot where I lay prone to shoot at the paper targets in the sand pit. While taking aim, a chipmunk was darting back and forth near the target. I guess I hadn’t enough yet, because I aimed at the chipmunk and fired a shot. Again, I failed to make a good kill shot; the chipmunk began screeching loudly and was flipping up and down frantically. Fuck, I thought to myself, missed again. I rushed up to the screeching animal to see that I had shot its lower jaw off. It also lay still briefly to look at me before I put the barrel of the rifle against its head to squeeze off the fatal shot.
It was very quiet all around me. No birds chirping, not even the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze. I looked up at a bright blue sky and the few clouds that floated by indifferent to this drama. I picked up my targets and walked back home where I cleaned my rifle and then slipped it into its case, placing it into the closet where it stayed, never to be taken out again. I later gave it to someone who showed interest in it.
While that incident marked the end of my hunting days, I continued to fish for many more years. That, too, however, eventually stopped. Even before I found the Buddha’s teaching, I realized that while I like to eat fish, I wasn’t fishing to eat. After a while, it gets tiring to be releasing one-eyed fish back into the water.
I’m not hostile toward hunters or those who fish, even if they do it for “sport.” I have my own issues to deal with. I’m on the hunt now for understanding and compassion, which is not always an easy task. And so I tolerate this little black-and-white jumping spider that lives in my office. I’ve resisted giving it a name; that would be pretty lame. I still squash bugs in my apartment from time to time, but other times I capture them and release them outdoors. I have roach traps in my apartment too, and you better believe I will kill a roach if I see one and can capture it.
So when I read about these folks who shoot dogs or mistreat animals, I find myself feeling just as much pity for the poor deluded soul committing this violence as I do for the suffering animal. It takes a twisted mind to commit such acts. I’m just thankful that I have found a way to untwist my own.
Postscript: The photo of the tarantula I took while hiking many years ago in the Bandelier National Monument near Sante Fe, N.M. It was just slowly walking along and I watched it for a bit. I then decided to blow a puff of air against it, not sure why. But when I did, the spider jumped up in the air about two feet and then ran fucking freaking fast in a direction away from me. It nearly made my heart stop, I was so happy the freaking thing didn't jump on me! I never knew a tarantula could move that fast!
Second postscript: There was another time I took my rifle out. I was a cabin counselor in the New Mexico mountains at a private boarding school. We had problems with skunks getting underneath the cabin, making all kinds of caterwauling and stinking up the place. I would take a squeeze bottle of bleach, shoot some bleach into a hole in the floor, which would chase the skunk out. I then waited by the hole where the skunks got in and shot it as it attempted to escape. I didn't miss that time, because I knew if I did, the skunk would likely spray me. It was shortly after that I gave away my rifle. Memory is a funny thing.
Some years ago, well before my mother had died, I had the opportunity to spend a week with her in a small cabin by the shore of Lake Huron. We covered a lot of ground during that week; reconciled many issues. And we did it in a loving and kind way.
Among the topics we covered was my coming out to her. She explained that at the time I told her I was gay, she was ready to hear and accept that. But, she added, if I had told her while I was still in high school, her reaction would not have been welcoming. In fact, she admitted that had I done it then, her reaction would have been ugly.
Most of us were taught since childhood that telling the truth is always the right course of action. But as we grew older, speaking the truth, we learned, was a complicated matter. Our culture attempted to simplify this with colloquialisms like, “If you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to say nothing at all.”
Trouble is for most of us, we are incapable of remaining silent when silence is called for. The Buddha recognized this, and his teachings on Right Speech reflect that while it is important we speak only truth, knowing when to do that is equally important. A relevant case can be found in the Abhayarajakumara Sutta (MN 58).
Prince Abhaya was goaded by Nigantha Nataputta to test the Buddha by asking whether one should always speak the truth, even if the truth would piss someone off (think Devadatta). But when Prince Abhaya asked, the Buddha replied that things aren’t that simple. The Buddha then replied with guidelines about what constitutes Right Speech. There are three elements: (1) whether the speech is true; (2) whether the speech is beneficial; and (3) whether the speech is pleasing to others.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu presents an excellent introduction to this sutta, noting that not only is the Buddha explaining Right Speech, he is demonstrating Right Speech in action. Throughout his explanation, the Buddha engages Prince Abhaya, allowing him to present his own thoughts and thus save face through the process.
Clearly, something that is untrue, that provides no benefit and which would just annoy people qualifies as wrong speech and ought to go unsaid. And if something is untrue, provides no benefit, yet would be welcomed by others, you still don’t say it. But, even if something is true, if saying it provides no benefit and would just annoy others, it also should be left unsaid.
“Do these jeans make my ass look fat?” “Why don’t you try on a different pair just to compare looks?”
What if the speech is true, is beneficial, but would still likely piss someone off? In those cases, the Buddha said it’s important to have good timing. That is even true when all three criteria are met: the speech is truthful, provides benefit, and would be welcomed. Even in that case, the Buddha said it is not spoken until the right moment arises. To know when the right moment occurs, we must cultivate compassion for others.
This isn’t always easy, especially when we talk of things like coming out. When we come out, that’s an example of something being true, that ultimately is beneficial, but which can bring about unpleasant results. We may deeply hurt someone when we come out, but we still do it. The trick is to have compassion for others. Sometimes when we come out in these circumstances, we are doing it solely for ourselves because we just can’t live the lie any longer. If we are compassionate when we do this, we recognize that whomever we are speaking to – a parent, other relative – may be guided by delusive thinking. We may never change that. We can, however, keep control over our own ego and retain our sense of compassion for the other person, even if he or she tells us to get the hell out of their life.
I was fortunate when I told my mother. Although I didn’t know it at the time, she already had several experiences that had prepared her for my announcement (not the least of which was her parish priest was a flaming queen!). At first, I think it did cause her some discomfort. But the timing was right nonetheless. And we moved on.
There are several songs by Scissor Sisters that have some Dhamma gems mingled with the lyrics. I don't know enough about the band to decipher if they are dabblers or practitioners, but when I hear these lines, I'm always left with the feeling of, "Hmm."
The song "Intermission" is a prime example. Lines like, "Happy yesterday to all, we were born to die," are too easy. The line that really gets me is this one: "Now there's never gonna be an intermission, but there'll always be a closing night."
Enjoy. Oh, and I apologize for the person who posted this video without editing the nearly one minute of silence it has at the end.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.