1.17.2014

How to Become a Buddhist

I am not a Buddhist, but I play one in peoples' minds.

I haven't even read enough about Buddhism to say I know the first thing about it. But I feel like I have Buddhistic tendencies, based on what little I have picked up about it here and there. A lot of my friends and coworkers say I am very "zen." I think they are defining this to mean very even keeled, mellow, and laid back, which I am...at least on the outside. On the inside I am a volatile frothing cocktail of angst. But it rarely sees the outside world.

My knowledge of the subject of Zen Buddhism comes from basically two books and a brief trial run of Zen meditation gleamed from a third book I never finished, because it was mostly boring.

The first book I read that touched on Zen Buddhism was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." The book had some good parts and some long dull parts, but once I trekked through the dull parts, I took away the decent message that you should try to live in the now, without expectations. I am not sure that is the message I was supposed to take away from it, but there you go. I don't remember the book being very explicit about Zen Buddhism per se. It was more about BEING ZEN. And there I am defining Zen to mean being very present and in the moment, which I think is closer to the definition than what my friends are thinking when they call me "zen."

I must have taken something about that book to heart, though, because I tend to prefer living in the present moment. I am not very good at planning ahead. On the other hand, I am pretty good about worrying about things, and that is not very zen-like. I am working on reducing that trait by practicing a zen approach to life. When I find myself worrying or stressing out, I just try to push it out of my head and mellow out. It's not easy. I suppose that is why actual Buddhists practice so hard at Zen meditation. They are trying to master the art of zen living.

The other book I read, more directly related to Zen Buddhism, was "Hardcore Zen." The author, one Brad Warner, was at one time a punk rock bass player in Akron Ohio, before he moved on to other things, which included working on Japanese monster movies and writing books about Zen Buddhism. I did not know that when I bought the book, but it turns out I too am a bass player, with roots in Akron OH, and a penchant for punk rock. I never had the good fortune to play punk rock music in a band, although I have been in a number of bands, but I could totally relate to this guy on some level, and that is probably why I dug his book.

However, having dug that book, I then decided to get his book, "Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death & Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye." Not so good. I mean, maybe I was just expecting it to be too much like "Hardcore Zen," and so my mindset was all wrong going into it (no expectations...Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind!). But this one just wasn't as fun. It was a more serious exploration of Zen Buddhism. I really should read it again and try to have an open mind, without expectations. It is probably really good if it is what you are looking for. I was looking for it to be like the other book, and it disappointed on that score. But it has been a while since I started reading it, and never finished it. So perhaps, if I revisit it now, I will have a different reaction.

Have you ever noticed sometimes you will be in a conversation with someone and your mind wanders off to other thoughts and daydreams? You totally lose track of what the person is saying and hope they don't ask you any questions... Well, that is not Zen. That is very un-Zen, because you are no longer in the present moment. Your mind has wandered off to other places, ignoring the present moment. The very few times I tried to do Zen meditation, it was a bit like this.

In Zen meditation, you are supposed to sit in a certain position and focus on your breathing. Whenever you catch your mind wandering off on random thoughts, you are supposed to cast those thoughts out and refocus on your breathing. The idea behind this "Practice of Zen" is that you train your mind to remain in the present moment as much as possible. Then this mental discipline can be applied to every day life, like when your boss is droning on about something stupid and you start daydreaming. Focusing on your boss at that moment probably seems pretty pointless, but no more so than focusing on your own inhalation and exhalation. It's not that your boss is enjoyable in any way. He or she just IS, and sometimes it is a good idea to pay attention to your boss. Most bosses don't like being ignored, because they think they are very self important. Consider though if you are on a trip and there is a cool sunset or some other cool thing. You want to be able to experience that thing very fully in the moment, and that is where some zen discipline might come in handy. If you are worrying about the bills you have to pay or your busy week at work or car troubles or relationship troubles, you aren't putting your whole mind into experiencing the present.

One of my New Year's Resolutions is to live more in the moment and not let worry and stress ruin my enjoyment of life. I will worry and stress when the present moment calls for it, like when I am being mauled by a bear or my boss is piling extra work on my head or I have to do my taxes. But the rest of the time, I am going to enjoy the present moment, like I am right now.

So, I am going to start trying to do Zen meditation again, as a disciplinary thing. In the past when I have tried this, the meditation quite often segued right into a considerable power nap. Part of the reason for that is because the sitting position recommended for Zen meditation is painfully uncomfortable for me. It may be uncomfortable for a lot of people, and that might be by design, to remind people constantly that they need to focus on their breathing. But I am not going to try to sit in the right position, because all I end up thinking about is how it makes my back hurt. I am going to lie down when I do it, and if that means more power naps, so be it. If that totally doesn't work, I might try sitting in a chair. I am going to start small, maybe 15 minutes at a time, then graduate to 30 minutes. I have things to do, I can't be sitting around all the time like a damn hippie.

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