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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter as @absentbree.