By Ken Madden
I consider myself a very regular human—imperfect, sometimes too much ego, sometimes humble.
I try to be generous and to have gratitude. I would help a person who needed it in any way I could.
But I still get riled up about bigotry, racism, exploitation of the wealthy, misogyny and am not always responsive, but reactive. This isn’t a great Buddhist example, but I continue to *care,* and so where does this come from for such an imperfect “normal” person?
My motivation to teach arises from trying to walk a path of paying-forward, living, some great kindnesses that have been given me and my family. I can say that when I was younger, my family and I had very little excess money. Actually, we had none. We had debt, and nothing in the bank or in the cupboards many weeks.
We were quite poor, living paycheck to almost-getting-to-the-next paycheck—a $500 car that leaked oil every time you drove it, and poorly paying jobs along with exploitive employers.
One Thanksgiving dinner, all we had in the house was a box of Kraft Dinner and we were four days away from payday. But there was a knock on the door and a “Box of Thanksgiving dinner” was at the doorstep with nobody to be seen.
Firefighters brought toys for my daughters for two Christmases because our budget was nothing.
How do you pay rent and raise a family of four on $1400/month? I couldn’t buy new $12 pants at K-Mart one month even though I needed them and they were on clearance. Utilities got cut off so we had no electricity. These were hard times.
This experience is what led me to pursue firstly a Christian path, then a Buddhist one; being poor is being powerless. Being exploited (working 16 hour days with no overtime) is being powerless. I had a young family and they need food and clothes and relied on me so I sucked it up and worked to deliver that.
I felt a lot of personal anger when I would get home from work. I would shut myself up in a home office for a while so my daughters wouldn’t see me that way and then I suppressed it. It’s not healthy. We ate poorly and I gained weight from too much cheap starch and stress.
I had a lifeline generously given. In the late 80s when my wife and I married we had had our first daughter before that Vow and there was considerable judgement still in our suburban community. We were both very young—my wife being 20 years old.
But a Lutheran Pastor asked us about our love and he gave us trust and married us and we are now married over 31 years.
After, we moved to a new town and joined a Lutheran church because of his pastoral example. The congregation accepted us even though they were well-established people in the congregation, and we were still very poor.
They were the Chair of the Hospital Board, prominent business-people, and lawyers. We wore the same clothes weekly, the ones with the least stains or holes.
The Pastor at this new town, this new Church, saw something in me I guess and invited me to undergo a course of Formation towards being a Deacon, a chance to gain a little self-esteem and value through serving others. It saved me.
I was made a Deacon in that Lutheran Church and I got to help out around the church. At times it really was all I had that gave me some personal value as I felt I was failing my family; I couldn’t break the poverty cycle.
Even that job failed me as the exploitative employer was taking money from all the employees and bought a new house and truck. When I asked about it, he fired me. My old minivan’s engine then completely failed. I didn’t even have that $500 car now and we lived 25 kilometers out of town.
With no job then, I had very minimal Employment Insurance as the job hadn’t paid well and it is based on your earnings here in Canada.
But a friend owned a car repair shop and helped providing free labour from himself to fix the engine and he would loan me the money for the parts. I could pay him back when I could. Such an example of kindness. It is very hard to receive the kindness of others, but you do what you have to for your kids.
There were no job prospects in that small town so we moved to Calgary. I started a new job and met some people.
I tried a new Lutheran Church but frankly I found that the Calgary churches made a triumphalist out of Jesus in the way that conservative Christian Churches tend to and I preferred the “pastoral Jesus” of love and caring for others.
I had felt *that* Jesus and it was what I felt was best for everyone and I really wanted to help others as it was all I knew that I could do for them and frankly for myself.
I explored alternative spirituality: Gnostic Christianity, the Western Magickal Tradition (Occultism): looking for a way to lessen the anger and pain I felt. To look at the causes of this pain and to try to know the God of Love that I thought might be out there and that we might be able to feel our Oneness with.
But frankly, these practices I observed in the Leaderships of the various Occult and “secret knowledge” gnostic groups led to an increase in personal ego but at the cost of your humility and this didn’t sit right with me, as Jesus called us to be humble and kind.
I came to a dark night of the soul time where I asked myself: “what do I really KNOW?” and my answer was, “Only this present moment, and that is filtered by my perceptions, my experiences, my senses. All else is Belief.”
I asked myself: Who talks like this? Answer: Buddhists. What is the outcome of their spirituality? Practices in Compassion, Wisdom, Kindness, Calmness of mind. This was what I wanted to develop in myself.
I started attending a Jodo Shinshu Temple as the model of spirituality I knew was based in organizations, and this sect didn’t hold that you could make your own Enlightenment based upon your own imperfect Self, and I knew my own imperfections.
I joined their Board of Directors when asked as I had previous experience with the Lutherans and Gnostics. I filled in when the Temple Sensei was away, informally at first, as I had been a Christian Deacon (and a Gnostic ArchPriest and Vicar General). I knew how to dress and run ritual and to chant and to give an informal talk.
I took a two-year Buddhist Correspondence Course offered through their Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley meant for Clergy aspirants by way of training but at the time I had no aspirations in this. I wanted to know more about Buddhism.
Later I was asked to take Tokudo Ordination in Kyoto, with training in Berkeley California. I served that Jodo Shinshu Temple for a total of 13 years, each week running Services, Sanghas, education, Film Festivals and events.
I sat weekly with a Thich Nhat Hanh mindfulness sangha at this time also—nearly weekly for 10 years.
Here I learned Practice and combined it with the Temple experiences I was building. But Services, Sanghas, Film Festivals and events aren’t directly leading towards self-improvement or greater Awareness or Kindness. I started a smaller practice-based sangha under the Temple and it was popular.
I came to realize after 13 years that nobody had ever thanked me beyond a thrown ‘Thanks” at the end of a service. I hadn’t asked for any thanks, but after many years of dedicated assistance I realized that it did bother me. I had had exploitative employers before and felt no appreciation.
I joined another meditation sangha, led by a kind professor, with a focus on various Buddhist and other mindful practices, and less about culturally-driven robes, ceremonies, chants, events and services.
Here, I was an equal with several other teachers and that is all I ask.
I remain teaching with this Calgary Sangha today but have actually moved 1000 kms west to Vancouver—this year of the pandemic has moved meetings online and I am able to remain with my sangha friends 1000 kms away.
Why did I move? The pandemic and the awareness I have gained reminded me that what is important to me is to be closer to my now-grown daughters who were both living in Vancouver. This direct experience of them awakens the love in my heart and is a direct step in what my being a better human and more-aware Buddhist is.
But my practice has suffered without a local sangha—being online is a good alternative, but it isn’t togetherness. It is just a small slice of each person and of myself.
So, I guess this is my story, and I remain caught up in it to the extent that the teaching I offer is meant for us regular, imperfect, non-monks—a way to develop and practice pastoral caring and love and gratitude.
I try to offer this as I have been the recipient of so much of these and I cannot be unaware of these finest of gifts.
Sensei Ken was ordained in Kyoto and joins us after teaching for over a decade at a local Buddhist Temple. He is the University of Calgary Buddhist Chaplain and actively works for Interfaith harmony. He created and has run The Circle Sangha: their mindful practices of emotional intelligence align with Calgary Buddhist Meditation. His approach is non-sectarian and practical, and he is delighted when Buddhist understanding aligns with science. Oh! and this life can be joyful and fun and kind when we allow our difficulties to drift away!