By Tyson Davis
Sentient Beings are numberless, I vow to save them. ~ First of the Four Bodhisattva Vows
Our editor, Buddha bless her soul, sent out a request asking us to talk about how our meditation practice has helped us in our daily lives.
This is something that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. And I’ve come to a strange conclusion; my meditation practice has helped you—just as much, if not more—than it’s helped me. Yes, you read that correctly.
I have been reading about Buddhism, and particularly Zen Buddhism for about 25 years, give or take. When I first started reading about Zen I was having a crisis of faith. At the time I needed something to believe in. I read about Zen and was hooked. The only problem was that I only read about it, I didn’t practice it. Oh, I mean I tried to imitate what I thought a Zen practitioner was like. But I didn’t meditate. For short periods of time I could act like a serene robot that smiled a lot (what I thought a Zen Master was like). However, when actual events happened that challenged me, like someone cutting in line at the comic book store, gym, or if my black bean burger, well done, with lettuce and tomato only and honey mustard on the side not on the burger came back with regular mustard on the side after I specifically asked for honey mustard, I would instantly lose the façade of being full of equanimity and wisdom and get really pissed off.
It took me about 15 years to realize that reading about Zen wasn’t doing a whole lot.
It helped some, but I was still the insecure, self-centered asshole I had been before, with only a little softening around the edges. So the next step was actually practicing Zen. That meant finding a teacher and meditating. It just so happened that there was a Zen Center with a real life teacher in Lexington. I was in luck! Now all I had to do was get in my car and go at the prescribed day and time of their meeting. Easy.
Except somehow I always had something that came up on that very day at that very time. And amazingly that kept happening. In fact, it happened for several years. As much as I told myself I wanted to go I couldn’t gather up the courage to do so. So instead I’d meditate on my own. Maybe once a week, for maybe five to ten minutes. Maybe.
As you can guess, this didn’t work out very well either. In fact, it may have made things worse. I was meditating, but there was nothing miraculous happening. Where was my big enlightenment that all those Zen books promised? So on top of all my other issues now, I was getting frustrated. I wasn’t a joy to be around before, but now it was worse. Just ask any of my ex-girlfriends.
Something had to give. And since enlightened Zen Masters weren’t knocking at my door begging to be able to teach me, I finally made a commitment to go to them. I was going to meditate daily for six months. If nothing happened during that time that made me a better person, well, I tried. So I went to a day-long beginner’s Zen retreat in January of 2011. I met a real life Zen Master. After the beginner’s retreat I didn’t immediately start going to the weekly Sangha meetings. Instead, I meditated on my own every day, at least once a day, for 15 minutes. I did this to be able to learn to comfortably sit in the half-lotus position because I wasn’t going to go to sit with a group and not look like I knew what I was doing. After all, I had read about Zen for 20 years at that point. I was close to being a master myself and I needed to look like one. Notice the fragile ego here.
So in February of 2011 I finally went to my first real Sangha meeting.
The first meeting was a blur because I was pretty nervous. I didn’t want to mess up or look dumb. The teacher at that time was a soft-spoken, serene guy; just what I thought a Zen Master should look like. Then he gave a dharma talk. During that talk I realized that he was a normal person and he had issues just like I did. And just like everyone else in the room did. But there was something about him that made me believe that he could handle those issues better than I could. So I kept coming. Week after week. And I kept meditating at home. Day after day.
It’s been seven years now. And I’m still going to my Sangha meetings and meditating most days, once or twice a day. Wow. When I look back at the person I was and look at where I am now, I can’t articulate how much Zen has changed me. That isn’t a good Zen sentence and I’m sure my current teacher would give me a stern look (she’s German so those are worse than American stern looks) and say that Zen didn’t change me, it just allowed me to see things as they really are. And she’d be right, from a certain point of view. But from the relative point of view, I am a better person than I was.
I’m not as big of a jerk. My ego is less fragile. I’m less self-centered. At times I can actually be compassionate.
When I get regular mustard instead of the honey mustard I asked for I don’t freak out. When someone cuts in line I don’t get angry. Okay, that last one is a lie. I still get angry when someone cuts in line. But it usually quickly dissipates and I stop to think about things from their point of view. Which finally brings me to how my meditation helps you.
So, in Zen, when one has an awakening experience the story goes that all beings are awakened and saved. In one sense my meditation has saved all sentient beings, and yeah, from an absolute standpoint that is true. But even though Emptiness is a nice place to visit, like Chicago, I wouldn’t want to live there. You and I live in the relative. We are in the dirty world of Samsara. This world where I am not as big of a jerk as I used to be. This benefits my current girlfriend and coworkers the most. But since I am a Republican I firmly believe in the trickle-down effect. So me being less of a jerk means that when I come into contact with you I don’t piss you off and then you are less of a jerk to the people you come into contact with throughout the day. And then they are less of a jerk and so on and so on until nobody gets really pissed off when they get regular mustard by mistake.
I am extremely thankful for my practice and what it has given me.
No words do it justice. I have gone through periods where I enjoy it and periods where I cringe when I bend down to get on the mat. But I continue. I am thankful for my teachers and my Sangha. I don’t think I would have been able to continue to do it without them.
And I apologize to my exes. I’m sorry I didn’t start sooner.
Tyson Davis is not a Zen Teacher. In fact, his main practice is “don’t know.” So don’t take anything he writes as the proverbial gospel (or sutra as the case may be). He does think he is something of a Zen unicorn though, because he is not a Liberal/Progressive Democrat Buddhist, and he rolls his eyes when American Buddhist teachers and bloggers constantly inject politics into their religion. Because of that he started a blog, Don’t Know Zen. There he does what some would call tilting at windmills but he calls bringing American Buddhism back to the Middle Way.
Editor: Dana Gornall