American Buddhism: Reflected, Revisited and Rejected

I have a story—as we all do—about how I came to find my bodhi tree. I have a story of its leaves that cool, its roots that stabilize and its trunk which protects.  Mine started perhaps differently than yours— in a small (but old) temple on the outskirts of a Chinese metropolis— a place of refuge for me; a quiet moment in the hectic and loud city around.  I was 16 and would often sneak out of my apartment, take the number 8 bus downtown and slip through the large gates and enter the temple. I had no idea what Buddhism even was at the time. All I knew was that in here was peace. It was found in the old, leaning pagoda, in the dancing incense smoke and in the intrigued smiles of the old monks who shuffled around.

My Chinese, I regret to inform, was lackluster. I wanted to understand Buddhism so with my limited vocabulary I asked one of the monks, “What do I do?”

                “Sit in quiet. Be here.”

I am sure he said more, but that was all I understood. Confused I replied, “That’s all?”

He smiled, shook his head and walked off. I was confounded and slightly perturbed, “Stop being so mysterious,” I mumbled, “I have no idea what I am supposed to do here, buddy! You can’t just walk off!”

Even though I was confused, I did what he said. I found a stone step under an eve, leaned back against a wall and sat in quiet. I breathed in the moment and breathed out the moment. Simple, I know, and possibly not even Buddhist, but in that time frame something clicked. There was no beautiful angels, no shining bodhisattvas that came down to bless me; no glory hallelujahs sung by a gospel choir, just a quiet understanding. Personally, that was good enough for me.

It began to rain as I sat there, and as much as wanted to stay, I realized it was time to go. Walking out of the temple I found myself in an “everything is so pretty and let’s all hug one another” mindset when I tripped over the bottom of the door frame and stumbled out of the temple.

                Buses, cars, bells, people- noise, noise, noise.

I was knocked out of my mindset quickly as the boisterous city reminded me that it was still there, still loud and still very, very dirty. 

                Hello, World. You do tend to make quite the entrance.

I was 18 when my family moved back to the States. I can’t say that I was too excited about the move but I was ecstatic about the prospect of being able to gather information on Buddhism. I had spent two years retaining all that I could from the little English literature I could find on the subject. It felt a little like trying to dig through all of the cereal bits in Lucky Charms to find the marshmallows. I can’t begin to tell you how many magazines and books I bought on the subject. Reading was my sanctuary and I adored every simple and complex thing my mind mulled over.

The problem came when I realized I was the only Buddhist in my area. When I say area I mean that I was the only Buddhist for roughly 65 miles. No temples, meditation centers, robes or mala beads. Just some jacked up 18 year old and her books.  I learned a lot from them but the truth was I needed some help and guidance. I needed to go out and search the American Buddhism scene.

                The rabbit hole was big and had a warning sign and yet I jumped into it.

I don’t know what I expected. I suppose half of me expected the quiet monks in the Chinese temple while the other half expected Cylon’s and Dalek’s. I did not think that Buddhists would float about on clouds of enlightenment tossing out petals of peace and wisdom to weary souls. I am sure I expected something…I just didn’t expect this. I was unaware that as a Buddhist I was supposed to do yoga, be a vegan, have $85 mala beads (made by Tibetan nuns, of course), hate Republicans, live in Boulder, and be a hipster. Apparently the Buddha had gone from chilling under a tree to slugging around a grenade launcher of harsh words and drinking Pabst (with his lululemon mat strapped to his back). I think I missed the sutra that expressed this side of him. 

The Buddha’s words, which were once a refuge, had turned into to a product to sell, a large outlet mall where one could pick and choose the easy bits and leave the contemplation behind. American Buddhism reminded me a lot of that moment when I stumbled over the door frame and tumbled into the city.

            It was noisy, loud and scared the hell out of me.

I had twelve different people screaming twelve different ways to enlightenment in my face, and others who would scold me over my meat eating habits while being drunks themselves and still yet others who tried to convince me that the Buddha really wanted me to do a Hero’s Pose and buy those yoga pants. I once had the pleasure of listening to a man my own age (22) explain in a coffee house that he was a Buddhist and completely understood the Dharma. I also had the pleasure of scoffing loudly and leaving.

Where was I? What was this place? It was overwhelming, deafening and did not resemble anything I had ever seen before. There was no respect for one another, no listening and no wisdom. Just very, very loud people who said so much that ended up being nothing more than dust. I tried to course my way though the words and opinions but I only found more. Along the way I met a few Buddhists that I respected and adored. I found the same peace and wisdom in their words that I did in the words of the monks in China. But I felt as if I were on a river;

            I tried to get close to the rocks of their sanity but the current pushed me down.

After two full years of being wholly frustrated by it all, I had enough. I was angry, sad and hurt. I pulled off my mala beads (made for me by a friend) and let them gather dust on my windowsill. I took my books and magazines and shoved them into a tidy corner of my closet. I shook The Buddha’s hand firmly and said, “Listen. I know it’s not fair. I adore your words; they are just hard to find in the screams here.”

            And I walked away.

It’s been close to 8 months now and honestly I still feel lost. Buddhism was, and still is, my path. It is the one I want to follow but the one I cannot find. I get upset when I see pseudo- hipsters with their mala beads and sandals telling me how easy it is for them. My blood boils and all I want to do is beat them with their hair gel. Buddhism was never easy and it never will be, at least for me. It’s a struggle to look inwards and see all that I am. It’s a struggle right now.

What do you do when you’ve lost the one thing that made sense? What do you do when you can hear the words of truth but get lost in the maze of opinions? I’m not sure if I will ever wander back to my path because I am not sure if I can find it. I suppose that could make me weak or even petty and perhaps I am.  One day I hope to find my old, sturdy tree. I hope to sit underneath its green leaves and listen to the wind. I hope more than anything I am finding my way out of the rabbit hole and back into peace.

This was a guest post by Brianna Ecklid. Brianna lives on the cold shores of Lake Michigan. She reads far too much for her own good, writes short stories, and geeks out about comic books. Someday she’ll own a cute hobby farm and mess up people’s brains with her words but for now she is content with spring and crocheting. You can contact her at brianna.ecklid@gmail.com or on twitter as @absentbree.

Bree

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19 thoughts on “American Buddhism: Reflected, Revisited and Rejected

  1. Bree (@absentbree), this is a great post. I do hope your foot finds it’s way on to the path, and you find your old sturdy tree. As an American, who happens to also be a Buddhist, I can tell you this (though it may be an unpopular opinion); ‘American Buddhism’ does not yet exist. Also, to be blatantly honest, as much as I think it could be a good thing, I’m not sure it’s possible. I am fortunate I guess. I have a Chinese temple that is like a second home to me. I hope you are able to find yours. …joining palms(Jack, thanks for putting this here)

  2. I think rooting our selves into a practice is one of the most difficult things we can do. Bree is hampered by almost "too much" and I ,personally, feel I am hampered at times by "too little."I disagree with you @mindonly but only in that "American Buddhism" does represent a geographic description of practice and agree with you in that it does not form its own specific entity or identity (as does Tibetan or Japanese Buddhism does). There is no "American Buddhism", but there is a wide scope and emerging presence of American Buddhists practicing…. Maybe even a couple of American Buddhas.Some people frame American Buddhism as a rebellious teenager throwing off the shackles of an Asian tradition. I think it is more of a toddler, taking her first shaking steps with a smile and then bursting into tears when she falls. Cheers,John

  3. Judging from your response, we are in complete agreement. My comment was towards the complete and utter lack of an ‘American Buddhism’ identity or entity. Yes, we are very fortunate for ‘American Buddhism’ to represent a geographic description of practice. I don’t actually think we’re even in the toddler phase yet, maybe, just maybe the conception phase. That said, I do hope the comments don’t get wrapped up on ‘American Buddhism’. I think Bree’s utterly honest and open words are the important thing on this page. as always, your friendKris

  4. Only time will tell. I agree that Bree's post is a wonderful, honest and openly bared expression of her practice (Buddhist or not Buddhist or something in the grey) and hopefully it finds her exactly where it needs to be.    

  5. Actually, in writing this blog post I found myself re-reading books on Buddhism that I have not read in months and I’ve gone back to toying with my beads at home. Meditation has started again (and after 8 months, let me tell you, it is hard.)It’s not much really, but I am finding myself trying-slowly- again to wade in the river. My Christian mother would tell me that I am “finding my way home”. Perhaps she is correct.

  6. I think one of the challenges is that there is a lot of crap that you have to wade through, especially if you don’t find a sangha that resonates with you to practice in. And if you do find a sangha, there might be a different kind of crap to deal with. I’ve certainly seen my share over the years in my sangha. In addition, there are a lot of “hip” Buddhist types who really have no intention of sincerely practicing, and really are just enjoying putting on a show. Or they are arrogantly confused, proclaiming they “get it all” after a few years of study or meditation. In the end, all you can do is go day by day, and do your best to remain authentic to whatever is calling you.

  7. Bree, I enjoyed this very much and wish you much happiness stepping through the door opening at just the right moment! BTW if you don’t like American Buddhism, there is always Canadian Buddhism 🙂

  8. Thank you, Bree, for such an amazingly open post! This kind of questioning, accepting, rejecting, is all a critical part of any path. You will find yours. And whatever it is, there will always be someone telling you you’re not doing it right. Such as it is. We’ll go with you.

  9. Being slow and cautious, I know virtually nothing about trying to find a sangha. However, doubt and faltering seem to be a universal experience with any long-term endeavor and I’ve experienced plenty of this with my Buddhist practice.What I’ve noticed is that failure tends to be a very beneficial catalyst. At first I am overcome by confusion, doubt, and indecision, and maybe I give up for the day. Then a new day comes and I try again, this time returning to basics, and in this I seem to thrive. Failure helps me to get over my expectations, to not try to force realization. It’s only when I expect nothing that something really does seem to happen.In short, I find that falling off the path is one of the healthier parts of my path. Feeling lost humbles me and keeps the practice sincere and simple. What else could I ask for?Thank you for the honesty. I am sure that it will be its own reward for you. Best of luck to you.

  10. @absentbree I know what you mean. There are a few sanghas around but for some reason they are not teaching about Buddha who he was. I don’t feel connected to them. So for me the best sangha I have found has been the digital one. There are so many resources on the net about learning about Buddha and the Dharma.I recently have come to Buddhism and after spending almost a month in continual meditation sitting I stopped. There was no reason for why I stopped I just did. Now, I’m doing my best to sit every day and read the Buddha’s words (as much as we can say they are his). The only advice I can really say, since I’m the newbie on the scene so to speak, is remember what the monk in China told you. “Sit in quiet, be here” because regardless of who you speak to, and what they say, it is always about being “here”. The more we practice on being “here” the easier it will be listen to noise and hear the music.

  11. while a support network, or serious co-practitioners can be helpful, as you yourself have pointed out, buddhism is the struggle for ourselves. it is relatively easy to meditate regularly in a buddhist nation. those of us who have been cursed to live in the modern west, without meaningful religious frameworks of people, though, are also blessed, because the hardest struggle yields the greatest rewards.

  12. Bre,, the way is not out there, the way is in you, look inside you to your own truth. As the Buddha said: Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common senseI live in the deep south.which is not a very understanding place when it comes to Buddhism, and at the time I’m a solitary practitioner. There is a sangha in town but I have not yet become active within it, because my concerns are very much so the same as yours. For now I try to remember the truth and the way come from within and not without, and I try to have faith that when I’m ready I will find my guru. For now I say, pull those books out, dust them off and remember that your truth is within you, and out there… that’s just an illusion.

  13. I’ve come across similar problems. I live in an area with Buddhist temples, Zen centers, and the like. But all visits to the temples, phone calls, emails, have been met with silence. So I travel on, finding my own path. But as the Buddha said, “Doubt everything. Be your own light” So I go on.

  14. This has gathered a little interest on reddit:Look under r/buddhism near todays date.Honestly, her rant is a child’s fit. We’re sorry you can’t find your concept of buddhism.

  15. Children are people too. And even a child's fit deserves consideration, compassion and engagement. No different than an "adult's" fit.

  16. Nice post, Brianna. Thanks for sharing part of your journey with us. My experience since joining a sangha has been a bit different from some of the others who’ve posted here. My contact with Buddhism used to be primarily online, but since I’ve joined a sangha, I’ve mostly dropped off of talking about practice online. I guess it’s a bit like when I was in college. I attended a conservative Christian college with a lot of people who were “waiting for marriage.” Yet, all they ever talked about was sex. When I started hanging around with people who were actually “getting some,” I realized that they almost never talked about it.Practice can be like this, I think. Once you’re in the thick of it, words about it don’t matter so much. It’s just part of your life.Buddhism may or may not be the right path for you. Only you can know that. But don’t let a bunch of virgins’ locker room talk spoil things for you. Once you’re stable in your own practice, others’ words and actions won’t mean so much. Try to build relationships with those good folks you mention, and to find a good teacher whose teaching style resonates for you, if you can. It sounds like you have a solid foundation already, to see through all the crap. Now, you just have to wade through it, right to the other shore (hint: the “other shore” is just this shore, seen clear-eyed).With affection, a fellow crafter and future hobby farmer.jjm

  17. I can relate a lot to what you wrote Bree. I think that you’re right where you need to be right now. As others have said, doubting isn’t a bad thing. Buddhism is a hard path at times and I think that’s what helps us grow. I should know…I’ve been at this Buddhism thing for going on 10 years and I’m in a path right now where I’m not “formally” meditating. But, the thing I’ve learned is that one can meditate in all places and at all times. A formal sitting isn’t necessarily the only way to go. I say, follow your heart and if that leads to Buddhist ideas then just be with them–regardless of what others do or say. It’s easier said than done but I have found it helpful. Especially now that I’m in a long slump.

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