By John Author
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to another installment of John Author’s pretentious, winding, anarchistic inner monologue.
Daniel Scharpenburg, my Dharma bro, said in his review of my book that I weave things together that don’t initially seem to be connected at all. I can assure you that this is totally accidental and that I’m in a perpetual state of having no idea what I’m doing. On that note, let’s get this started.
The longer I practice Buddhism, the less I conform to this image I had of what a Buddhist should be. The longer I practice, the more ordinary I become.
I don’t feel like a Buddhist anymore.
Meaning, I don’t feel like the idea I had of what it’s supposed to feel like to be a Buddhist. Does that make sense? After returning to the secular workplace, upended from my quiet rural home/monastery, I’ve begun to scrutinize everything I have held to be true over the past four years.
I started to question the practical benefit of the practices I’ve been practicing, and the real-world applicability of my philosophies. This questioning brought me back, once again, to the question—the one that’s on the minds of every plugged-in member of my generation: Who am I?
Back in the day, debating about essences and universals was the thing to do. You weren’t in-the-know if you weren’t talking about chi, emptiness, Brahman or being and nothingness. Those debates linger on in closed intellectual circles typically among the sounds of ice clinking in frosted glasses of Scotch and the smell of leather bound pipe tobacco. Oh, and also on Facebook.
Science has pretty much put all that to bed. Everything is an expression of cause and effect, an expression of time and space. Yet the archaic question of essence is still on all our minds, only now it’s the question of identity.
Daniel always jokes that I, “Throw things at walls to see what sticks.” Nothing’s stuck so far—it either passes straight through the wall or slowly drips down like a spit infused loogie. But this constant search for something to stick is more than just me seeking a stable view; it’s me searching for myself.
It’s the incessant need to define myself so that I can know my place in the world. If I knew my place in the world, I could know how to behave in and relate to the world.
This question probably wasn’t too important to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but it’s vitally important to we Generation Y’ers and Millennials who are constantly “on,” and constantly plugged into an ever-changing news feed.
We “like” this, we share that, we post this, we comment here and there and this all becomes a further elucidation of the self. We are struggling to craft an identity by sifting through limitless information so that maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to look over our profiles and say with a sigh of satisfaction, “This is who I am, this is what I believe, this is what I want.” Some even take this to the extreme, creating fake profiles and inauthentic personae. They can finally be their ideal self when they’re online. They can be doctors and lawyers, they can have families. The shy introvert can finally flirt, the closeted gay teen who lives with a conservative family can finally express themselves.
We can also choose what parts of themselves to reveal the same way that we can strategically snap a selfie in order to craft a certain appearance. If I tilt my head up, look a bit to the left, keep half my face to the shadows and snap a pic from above… voila! I’m 50 pounds lighter and 10 years younger!
But it’s fiction.
The shy introvert is still a shy introvert, the closeted gay teen is still a closeted gay teen. I’m still an overweight 30 year old, and my last name still isn’t Author.
The internet has made the adolescent quest for identity into a lifelong process, and it’s split our lives in two. Forget the mind-body dichotomy—now there’s the in-person and online dichotomy. Which one of these Johns is the “real” John? Buddhist philosophy would cop-out and say, “Neither,” but I’m gonna brush anatta aside for the time being because, well, I’ve already sung that song.
I knew a friend of mine (I’ll call her M.) for a longtime online before visiting her in California. But no amount of chatting expressed who she is in-person. And now, not only are we replacing “authentic” communication with text in order to connect with people who are thousands of miles away (which I’d say is great), but teens are texting each other while sitting three feet away (which is maybe not so great). We’ll never answer the, “Who am I?” koan by sifting through our news feeds, we’ll never truly get to know someone unless we meet them face-to-face, hear their voice and hug them. A good portion of the sagely Buddhist John came from sifting through data, digesting ancient stories and interacting with internet gurus.
Back at work, surrounded by non-Buddhists and subjected to people and circumstances that I can’t simply block or unfollow, my practice has withered down to nothing—and I am so, so thankful for that.
Many people seem to come to Buddhism by first experimenting with secular mindfulness. I seem to be going the opposite way.
Screw Nibbana, screw the mountains of philosophy, screw lineages and rituals and emptiness. “Just this” is all I need right now: the clicking keys, the early morning breath, the steaming cup of gourmet coffee. I have Buddhist practice to thank for moving me past the Buddhist ideal. I’m not a sage—not a wise man on the hill. I’m not even entirely sure if that kind of persona has ever been genuine, or merely a contrived way to motivate us. I’m an animal. An animal who’s lost his way in a labyrinth of concepts.
These days, I mostly practice with Zoe—my cat. I just want to get back to my roots, and our roots are the same. Who better to teach me about the natural Way than a being who knows no other way—who has no choice but to be in tune with the Tao?
And so I sit (meditate) not to become liberated from suffering, but just to be and relax—to take a break from the jibber jabber of brain noise and simply look around. Submitting to a life of sensation, of instinct and feeling, rather than the host of contrived selves I’ve tried on and discarded.
Daniel, who apparently knows me better than I know myself, said, “This isn’t a book about Buddhism, although it’s written by a Buddhist.” That astute quote even describes this article to a great extent and may describe much of what I write for awhile.
I’m a Buddhist who’s finding it more and more difficult to write about Buddhism. Honestly, if I kept going with it, I would just start to repeat myself. Instead, I feel compelled to write about life as is and my place as an outsider in a world gone mad, a world I’ve never quite frankly felt at home in.
A man who just wants to be natural in a world that praises the artificial, to be happy with little in a world that encourages excess. To enjoy the whisper of trees even as their very lives are threatened by looming chainsaws, who wants to swim nude in country streams even as farmers dump pesticides into the water. Who wants to lay in the dirt, looking at the stars without being distracted by the constellations. I hope you, my Dear Reader, aren’t put off by this shift, but it is a necessary one.
Buddhist practice isn’t making me into a sage who only focuses on Buddhism—it’s making me into a human being who focuses on human issues. To do this, I have to put to bed, “Who am I?” Until I do, I’ll only continue to throw stuff at the wall without ever being truly engaged. I’m sharing this long and winding piece because I don’t think I’m alone in this.
We have to take the plunge, we have to commit to something, to dedicate ourselves to something, to stick with it—to strangely counter the impermanence teachings by finding that one authentic pearl and clutching onto it for dear fucking life.
Resisting change is, paradoxically, the only way I’ll ever be able to change things. Because, if we look around, things are not changing for the better. We are straying from our roots, from what it means to be human, from what it means to be alive.
Until I settle on an identity, I will leave behind me a graveyard of half-baked notions and half-fulfilled dreams. The Buddhadharma makes us question identity, to perhaps even surrender it to the Void. I’ve done that, it’s nothing special and we just end up taking the Void as our new identity anyway.
It is possible to live free of preferences and labels, but it’s highly impractical and can even lead to a manic chaos devoid of discipline. Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time in that headspace.
It is impossible to sustain livelihood without, “I am (fill in the blank).” It’s impossible fulfill any dreams, or goals, or have worthwhile convictions without, “I am (fill in the blank).” That’s why monks run and hide in monasteries—because they can’t function in society. What kind of example do they set for us? How can someone who gives Dharma talks and meditates for a living lecture us on how to think, feel, and relate with a world that they’re no longer even a part of? They’ve dropped out of it, and they have the nerve to tell us how to live authentically in it when they are the ones who’ve adopted a walled-in fiction as their “truth.”
This critique is as much toward my own former delusions as it is toward them. Before rejoining the sludge, I really had no right to give advice to any of you on how to live with the sludge or on how to cope with it; because I ran away from it, I wasn’t ordinary. Now, my life is about as ordinary as they come.
So this is my lion’s roar, as the Buddha would call it: I am animal, I am mystic, I am Buddhist, I am the critic and the renegade and I will resist.
Or, am I once again, throwing stuff at the wall?
Photo: Kevin Corrado
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”