By Ross Cloney
My favourite Just So story has always been, The Cat that Walked by Himself.
Quick recap for anyone unfamiliar with it (and smoothing out a few aspects that are a bit out of step with the modern world): the Cat watches as the wild animals of the forest agree to their roles in the world being built by Woman (Man just seems to hang around, occasionally go hunting with Dog) but each time chooses to keep walking his own path.
In time, the Cat lays out the terms of his own place in the world and through cunning (insight?), meets the conditions laid before him to secure his place by the fire and saucer of milk while still having the right to come and go as he pleases.
I don’t think I’ve ever identified with a fictional animal quite as much as I identify with this cat.
I came to the path of the Buddha around seven years ago, after a messy break-up and unsatisfactory job led me to that existential howl of ‘WHY’ at the world. Let me tell you that the future I had mapped out and expected to have with such certainty that I felt it in my bones was quickly replaced with a blank page.
Basically, I had been given a short, sharp lesson in impermanence and dukkha.
So I start walking this path and the first of the two jewels were pretty easy to pick up. I mean, the Buddha and the Dharma are everywhere right? Just to be safe, I’ve got a wee little 3D printed Buddha and a small library of books on the topic, so I think I’m covered in that regard. But the third jewel—the sangha? That’s a pesky one because I’m that freaking cat and getting me involved in a group activity usually requires some appeal to my interests and sensibilities.
I don’t, as a general rule, join things for the sake of being involved and always reserve the right to leave when I’ve had enough.
Enforced team sports at school? Hated it. Mandatory workplace team building activities? I would have to stifle the scream. My single greatest joy about turning 30 was gaining the ability to leave midway through a night out on the town and no longer having to find an excuse to justify it.
All this makes finding a sangha that I really click with an uphill struggle. I’ve dabbled, sampled the menu, popped into sittings and lectures and workshops. It’s always been pleasant and useful but at the end of the day, I walk back into the night and keep going down my own path. Maybe, probably even likely, I’m making this more difficult for myself than it needs to be.
And then, I found The Tattooed Buddha. How I did, I can’t remember. There is a 90% chance I was literally googling “tattooed buddhists” to see what would come up on image search. Here was a place for Buddhism that was openly declaring itself a home for misfits and the Middle Way’s awkward squad. The embrace of this wasn’t just for show either—the opportunity for discussion and debate was open to everyone and was about everything with a focus on compassion.
This was a conversation about Buddhism that spoke to me and reflected back the world I lived in and cared about.
A lot of the sittings and workshops I attended were also attended by people who were predominately 1) white 2) middle-class 3) middle aged 4) straight.
No judgement in that—I’m glad the dharma is there for everyone. But I’m only 2.5 of those things and often left wondering where everyone else was.
On The Tattooed Buddha, I found a community discussing what the dharma means when you’re a person of colour, when you’re queer, when you’re struggling to pay rent. It pointed the way to teachers who spoke of a Buddhism rooted in social justice and inclusion.
They even published a couple of my own pieces, as I stumble though exploring and expanding my practice as someone who is drawn to Zen, who is a gay man living in a major world city, who frankly isn’t saying anything profound but who wanted to say something.
Will I ever properly join a meatspace sangha and sit with other people on a regular basis? I dunno. But to me, The Tattooed Buddha is very much a virtual sangha, a community where I can sit and listen for a while before walking my own path again—knowing that other cats are walking along their own paths too.
Perhaps sometimes, we’ll walk together for a while.
Ross Cloney is where the Venn diagram of people who are interested in molecular biology, Buddhism, zombies and home brewing intersect. He sometimes thinks a sutra on how to be a 30-something gay man in London (from a Buddhist perspective) would be mega-useful, but acknowledges it is rather niche.