By Gerald F. Stribling
It was in the shade of a veranda in the jungle with “Yoda” when I was first exposed to the richness of Buddhist thought.
There is a little village in the jungle in Sri Lanka called Randeniya, where I lived as a volunteer teaching English to children. I connected with my first guru there; a pint-sized monk named Venerable Pemarathana—a Yoda look-alike who spoke excellent English, and who, when I knew him, was a professor of Buddhist studies at the University in Anuradnapura.
I met with Ven. Pemarathana on weekday afternoons, when it is too hot in Sri Lanka to do anything except sit in the shade and talk. He sat in a kind of Adirondack chair, and as it is custom there to sit at a lower level than monks, I was usually planted on a little wooden bench, something you’d find in a third-world preschool.
Bhante Pemarathana and I had expansive talks about life from the Buddhist perspective.
I read and studied the tenets of Buddhism one summer, borrowing a half-dozen books from Bhante and others, wrestling for the first time with the Four Noble Truths. Frankly, I found them disturbing; particularly the Second Noble Truth, which discusses the causes of suffering and introduces the notion that clinging and craving—attachment—cause human misery.
Ten years before this encounter I’d switched careers, moving from teaching to social services. I found the work of doing case management on behalf of disabled people and the severely mentally ill to be sometimes exciting, enormously fun and deeply satisfying. I went on to serve criminals, veterans, the homeless, and Asian refugees. I’m a professional helper kind of guy who enjoys serving others during their times of trouble.
So I am really a selfish man, I think, hogging opportunities to sit with dying people or feed friends with cerebral palsy on restaurant outings. I’m having the time of my life.
This may never have come to pass if it hadn’t been for an afternoon on the veranda with Pemarathana.
I was struggling with the Second Noble Truth. I have a wife and children (and grandchildren now), and I felt I had “attachment” to them with my heart and entire being. So, I asked the little monk, if I want to follow the Buddhist path, am I called upon to lessen that attachment or to let it go somehow? Doing that would cause me much suffering too, “How does that work, Bhante?”
Providing the caveat that he had no personal experience in the realm of love and family life, he pointed out that living the life of a responsible householder is a Buddhist virtue, and that it is something that I should embrace. Then, referring to my profession, he said this:
“You call yourself a compassionate man. But how compassionate can you be? That can be measured by how much compassion you feel toward your wife, for you will never love anyone more than her. That is how much compassion you can show others. Family life is a rehearsal for the rest of what you do.”
I was to learn that relationship is everything when I returned from Sri Lanka and took a job leading a prisoner-reentry program for incarcerated veterans. Me, my staff, and the men and women we helped had all served our country in uniform, so there was no client/case manager thing going on so much as the notion that we are all veterans working together to solve problems. We all became almost as close as if we were serving together in combat. We invested in our relationships, and we loved each other. In three years we served 250 people, and the only ones who went back to prison were cocaine addicts who tested dirty in the parole office. At 15 percent, we had the lowest recidivism figures in the business.
Ven. Pemarathana taught me to erase the boundaries to love.
Compassion can be expressed in many different ways. For some, it means getting mud, and crud, and blood on your hands reaching into the gutter, somewhere way outside our comfort zone, to try to pull someone out. The U.S. Marines taught me to manage my fear, and the Dharma set me free to discover the joys of professional altruism. Compassion with a sense of adventure attached to it (pun intended) is a remarkably satisfying way to find happiness. I’ve been fortunate.
Gerald “Strib” Stribling, M.Ed. lived a childhood that fostered in him a sense of adventure long before he served in the U.S. Marines. He points out that as the son of a career infantry soldier and a WAC, “We lived in foreign countries and distant army posts. The military was my culture. I didn’t know anything about civilian culture until my enlistment was up at age 21. Civilian life was fucking scary.” Stribling attended several podunk state universities and taught elementary school and special education for fifteen years, escaping the little bastards with frequent solo trekking trips to wildernesses ranging from Appalachia to the High Sierra, including a summer on the Appalachian Trail. During a second career that lasted 20 yeats, he served as a case manager and program coordinator for agencies serving a variety of populations, including people with severe developmental disabilities and mental illness, veterans, Asian refugees, the homeless, and prisoners re-entering the community. He was fired from his last case management position for paying a client’s rent out of his own pocket and pissing off the Urban Housing Authority.
Strib volunteered to English to children in Sri Lanka for two summers right after 9-11. There he studied Buddhism with some of the most highly respected monks in the country. During the second summer, he actually lived in a Buddhist monastery.
He is the author of one of 2015’s hottest Buddhism books, Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness—a not-so-subtle, basic examination of the essence of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, as well as the Buddha’s life, karma and rebirth, etc. It’s short and funny and to the point. “I wrote it with my golf buddies in mind. Way too much Buddhist stuff is too complicated to wade through, and some of it is fairyland voodoo, full of the metaphysical improbabilities that condemns religion to bullshit. Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a way to live a happy life.”
Stribling’s blog is called “Buddhism for Tough Guys.” Can’t find a link? Fuck you, Google it yourself.
Editor: Alicia Wonziak