Buddhism as Religion Versus Philosophy

“At its etymological root, religion is what rebinds or reunites us with the sacred. Many of us long for this return from exile and then discover that it leads us toward existential danger —  the deconstruction and rearrangement of our very sense of self and reality. In common usage, religion often refers to the belief systems and institutions that surround this longing.” ~ Joan Sutherland Roshi

Buddhism can be and is practiced as a religion by many people who don robes, ring bells and burn incense as they bow, chant and meditate.

Yet as the popularity of meditation continues to advance in mainstream culture, an ever-growing number of secular Buddhists practice mindfulness meditation without incorporating any the bells and whistles (er, gongs) of traditional monastic systems such as Zen.

In light of this evolving understanding, Buddhism can be considered a living, breathing religion that promotes leading of a conscious life for the benefit of all beings.

Many people associate “religion” with Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism exclusively.

Buddha dharma demands interactivity from its practitioners. They are prompted to doubt, question and investigate the teachings for themselves. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha states:

“Do not accept anything on (mere) hearsay — (i.e., thinking that thus have we heard it for a long time).

Do not accept anything by mere tradition — (i.e., thinking that it has thus been handed down through many generations).

Do not accept anything on account of mere rumors — (i.e., by believing what others say without any investigation).

Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures.

Do not accept anything by mere suppositions.

Do not accept anything by mere inference.

Do not accept anything by merely considering the reasons.

Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your preconceived notions”

Blind faith is not an option here. Nothing is to be taken for granted just because a holy or learned man said so.

Krishnamurti echoes these sentiments:

“The many religions throughout the world have said that there is an enduring, everlasting truth, but the mere assertion of truth has very little significance. One has to discover it for oneself, not theoretically, intellectually, or sentimentally, but actually find out if one can live in a world that is completely truthful.

We mean by religion the gathering together of all energy to investigate into something: to investigate if there is anything sacred. That is the meaning we are giving it, not the religion of belief, dogma, tradition or ritual with their hierarchical outlook. But we are using the word ‘religion’ in the sense: to gather together all energy, which will then be capable of investigating if there is a truth which is not controlled, shaped, or polluted by thought”

Religion, then, takes on a meaning distinct from the mainstream definition. Religion is the movement toward personal and collective transformation, and it is not bound to any particular institution or church.

Like all of major religions, Buddhism offers an ultimate reality, whether it is labeled as nirvana, satori or our buddha nature. The key is that each individual human being has the innate potential to awaken and become a buddha. The multitude of schools and sects of Buddhism all offer a clear path to the attainment of ultimate reality. From the noble eightfold path in Theravada Buddhism to the bodhisattva path of Mahayana, Buddhist practitioners are always provided with a framework of daily life practices and meditation techniques that culminate in enlightenment. Buddhists who approach or attain the experience of ultimate reality become transformed by their experience — their ethics and behaviors change organically as they become more conscious, present, kind and compassionate.

The modern classic, Mindfulness in Plain English, identifies Buddhism as a whole to be “quite different from the theological religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct entrance to a spiritual or divine realm, without assistance from deities or other ‘agents.’ Its flavor is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we might call psychology than what we usually call religion”. While it is notably distinct from most other major religions in terms of deity and dogma, Buddhism is still a religion, in the newly defined sense of the word explored in this essay.

At the start of his spiritual quest, Prince Siddhartha left his sheltered life seeking answers to life’s big questions. Are we born just to suffer, grow old, and die? What’s the point? After years of experimenting with a wide array of ascetic religious practices, he abandoned all beliefs and doctrines and finally understood the workings of the mind in a state of clear awareness and sublime bliss under the bodhi tree. From then on, during the four decades until his death, the Buddha taught what he had learned through so many years of trial and error.

The Awakened One discovered the ultimate truth of authentic religion when he let go of organized religion, and Buddhist practitioners both secular and religious continue to follow his wise path.


Learning to Love, Loving to Learn

May is for Metta.

Metta is loving kindness. This technique taught by the Buddha is a simple yet transformational practice of well wishing. It is a way of opening our hearts and letting love and kindness pour in for ourselves, our loved ones, our wider community members, the difficult people in our lives and, ultimately, all beings.

May has 31 days, so here are 31 daily aspirations to guide our metta meditation practice for the month. May they be of benefit!

1 – May I be safe.

2 – May I be happy.

3 – May I be healthy.

4 – May I be peaceful.

5 – May I live with ease.

6 – May I be free.

7 – May you be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (Visualize a loved one.)

8 – May you be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (Visualize a neutral person.)

9 – May you be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (Visualize a difficult person.)

10 – May we be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (Myself and my loved ones.)

11 – May we be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (My wider community.)

12 – May you be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (All beings on Earth.)

13 – May all beings be safe.

14 – May all beings be happy.

15 – May all beings be healthy.

16 – May all beings be peaceful.

17 – May all beings be free.

18 – May all beings feel strong & supported.

19 – May all beings be loved & cared for.

20 – May all beings breathe & relax.

21 – May all beings go with the flow.

22 – May all beings express our unique power.

23 – May all beings open our hearts.

24 – May all beings listen.

25 – May all beings imagine.

26 – May all beings connect with our intuition.

27 – May all beings connect with our divine nature.

28 – May we all love.

29 – May we all share.

30 – May we all serve.

31 – May we all unite.




May 2015

Metta Check-in 
Love is… 10 Quotes on Education & Love

Will Yoga Send You Straight to Hell?

Read the original on elephant.

bird on cross

“There’s the spiritual health risk. When you take up those practices from other cultures, which are outside our Christian domain, you don’t know what you are opening yourself up to. The bad spirit can be communicated in a variety of ways.”

Father Roland Colhoun, a Catholic priest in Londonderry, Northern Ireland recently sparked a debate online as he joined a long list of Christians and people of other religions to link yoga with the devil. During  a sermon at a February 22 Mass, he told the congregation “it’s a slippery slope from yoga to Satan.” With regard to the risks of yoga specifically, he reminded us that Pope Francis said “do not seek spiritual answers in yoga classes.”

His words echo a friend-of-a-friend of mine, a self-proclaimed 54-year-old former yogi who not long ago tried to persuade me that the world is run by Satanists (okay, maybe it is) and, furthermore, that yoga and dharma open up our minds to evil, dark spirits and are therefore to be avoided. I said, “I don’t think I could quit doing yoga at this point even if I tried.” She didn’t hear me. After she called me ignorant because I chose not to enter into her debate, I ended the conversation and went about on my merry, diabolical way, chanting OM and forming complicated mantras with my fingers.

In reply to the Irish priest’s outrageous comments, Rajan Zed, President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, wrote:

“Yoga, although introduced and nourished by Hinduism, was a world heritage and liberation powerhouse to be utilized by all. The Vatican Library itself reportedly carried various yoga related books; like Bhaktiyoga, Yoga-system of Patanjali, Yogic Powers and God Realization.”

Why is yoga so popular? Because it improves our well-being and quality of life.

Even just practicing the physical aspect of yoga (which is what many practitioners do) results in a slew of overt benefits. Much of modern yoga is basically advanced calisthenics with some deep breathing and positive thinking thrown in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there?

Yoga is denounced by conservatives who view it as “New Age,” which refers to an amorphous cultural movement with no hierarchy, dogma, doctrine or official membership whose influences can include Oprah, astrology, “manifesting,” Goddess worship, occult practices like Tarot card reading, vegetarianism and veganism, “positive psychology,” Taoism and/or self-help. New Age originates from 19th century “New Thought,” whose founders were most influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson—who was heavily influenced by Vedanta, the spiritual teachings of Hinduism. Ralph Waldo read the Bhagavad Gita and considered himself a yogi. He could be considered the father of “American” yoga.

In stark contrast to the monotheism of Bible-believers, pop yoga culture totally embraces  Vedantic concepts, such as: all is one; humans are spiritual beings in physical bodies; we are co-creators of the universe; and life is a journey toward awareness of our true source. Many religious people criticize New Age thinking, because its tenets are in opposition to the belief that there is One True God, namely theirs, rather than, God forbid, a Goddess. Yoga is neither angelic nor Satanic. It is a personal practice that may be physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, educational and/or enlightening. Retaliating and attacking is getting us nowhere. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s not about generalizations (“Christians are judgmental hypocrites” versus “yogis are brainwashed hippies”). Yoga and Christianity actually have a lot of things in common.

May we remember that awareness, kindness, meditation, compassion, morals and ethics, are the basis of all good religion and spirituality.

What Letting Go Isn’t.

It’s been said that the dharma teachings can be summarized in two words: let go.

Letting go is the ultimate zen habit we all must master, sooner or later.

Letting go has also become somewhat of a cliche and is often misused in spiritual contexts. But it is the single most powerful, simple (not easy) skill we can cultivate in life.

Let’s take a deeper look at what letting go isn’t and is—and some concrete ways to practice it.

Letting go isn’t just cliche spiritual advice. Letting go isn’t not caring. Letting go isn’t passive. Letting go isn’t merely saying, “It’s all good” or “whatever.” Letting go isn’t lazy.

Letting go isn’t giving up. Letting go isn’t the easy way out. Letting go isn’t always fun. Letting go is the most courageous thing you can do.

Letting go is wise.

Letting go enables life, energy, love and learning to flow freely. Letting go takes practice. How can we turn it into a revolutionary daily life practice?

Here are 18 ideas for starters. May they be of benefit.

Seeking: Healers—Inquire Within.

“Few of us are satisfied with retreating from the world and just working on ourselves. We want our training to manifest and be of benefit.

The bodhisattva-warrior, therefore, makes a vow to wake up not just for himself but for the welfare of all beings.”

~ Pema Chodron

A Bodhisattva is one whose aspiration is to attain Buddhahood (enlightenment) for the benefit of all sentient beings. Although the concept comes from Mahayana Buddhism, I believe Bodhisattvas can come from any (or no) faith tradition.

Bodhisattvas are healers. Compassionate, kind, real, patient, mindful and intelligent.

As Bodhisattvas, we take vows—we set the intention of serving others. We aspire to be of benefit to all beings, including ourselves.

Kind of a lofty goal, right? As Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal suggests, rather than thinking of the Bodhisattva concept as some huge ideal, we can think of it as the only thing we can do.

There are famous Bodhisattvas like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, but the beauty of the Bodhisattva is that it is available to each one of us. There are countless souls working anonymously, right now, for everybody’s liberation and enlightenment. Will we join their ranks?

Here are some of my own favorite renditions of the Bodhisattva vows. If they resonate, write them down on a piece of paper and post them in your house where you will see them every day.

The traditional vows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is insurpassable; I vow to become it.

From Pema Chödrön’s The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

Throughout my life, until this very moment, whatever virtue I have accomplished… I dedicate to the welfare of all beings.

May the roots of suffering diminish. May warfare, violence, neglect, indifference and addiction also decrease.

May the wisdom and compassion of all beings increase, now and in the future.

May we clearly see all the barriers we erect between ourselves and others to be as insubstantial as our dreams.

May we appreciate the great perfection of all phenomena.

May we continue to open our hearts and minds, in order to work ceaselessly for the benefit of all beings.

May we go to the places that scare us.

May we lead the life of a warrior.

The Dalai Lama’s explanation:

The vow of the Bodhisattva is that she will not go into Nirvana until every single suffering being has entered Nirvana. One has to understand what this means.

Our awakening is not a personal triumph. We do not have to win a spiritual sprint. We are one mind. Awakening is to penetrate more and more deeply into this truth.

The world is alive. And as long as there is suffering then this living whole is shattered. Whether it is my suffering or the suffering of another, when seen from the perspective of the Bodhisattva makes no difference, because, seen from this perspective there is no ‘me’ or ‘another.’

In the Diamond Sutra, “Although the Bodhisattva saves all sentient beings, there are no sentient beings to save.”

These vows are practiced in three ways: restraint from harmful actions, doing wholesome deeds and working for the benefit of others.

How can we cause no harm in our actions? What kind deeds can we do for someone today? How are we working for the benefit of our fellow beings? As MLK put it, “The most important question is: what am I doing for others?”

The world wants—and needs—more Bodhisattvas. Inquire within; are you up to the task?

Holy Sh*t: How I Was Captivated by Fundamentalist Christianity

Note to readers: This is the entire story of my summer of Jesus and Buddha. Previously published in five parts on elephant journal, I have revised and consolidated it into one. I am seeking suggestions for a captivating title. If you think of one, please email me or leave it in the comments section. Thank you!

 Palo Alto, California – June 2004

By the time I turned twenty four, I thought I had it all figured out. Life was good. I had been living the dream in the San Francisco Bay Area for eleven months, teaching yoga “full-time,” in addition to a slew of other part-time gigs, including subbing at public schools in San Jose and Cupertino. All grade levels, all subjects. It was brutal and brilliant.

I’d been a serious yogi for four years, but I was just starting my sitting meditation practice. I’d gone on a four-day personal zen retreat at Green Gulch farm in April where I began to deepen my exploration of Buddist philosophy.

My birthday is May 30. Six days after celebrating in my hometown, Austin, I boarded a plane back to California. On the connecting flight, I met a guy. Named Christopher. He had just turned thirty one the day before, June 4. We flew from Dallas/Fort Worth to San Jose. And thus commenced The Summer of Christopher. Mid-air.  

Not to sound like a super spacey yogini or anything, but I really feel that the prana of, you know, the Universe, the magical, mysterious stuff of Life that is forever moving and changing, attaching and detaching, shifting and shaking, dancing and stretching, singing and swirling, loving and fearing? That shit shifted on the flight when I met Christopher, that blue Saturday afternoon when we barreled across the sky.

Over the years since, I have literally drafted dozens of versions of the scene on that airplane, attempting to rewrite the reality of the flight in which Christopher crashed into my life, to somehow make sense of it all.

I’ve realized it doesn’t matter what exactly was said or done.

I remember that I was the last person to board the plane, until he came onboard a couple minutes later. It was a Southwest Airlines flight with unassigned seats. I was in a window seat; the aisle seat next to me was free. He asked me if he could sit there; I gave him my permission. Despite the fact that he handed me a business card that announced he was in real estate, I was attracted to him right away.

He went by Christopher, not Chris. We started talking about religion and spirituality almost immediately. Who are you? Where are you coming from? Where are you going?

What do you do?

I tell him I do yoga. He tells me he’s Christian.

I think: Oh. Really? What a goddamn shame.

I’m all for Jesus, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t think much of what’s currently done in His name have much to do with the essence of His teachings: Karuna. Compassion.

Christopher was born and raised in the San Jose area. His immediate family consists of two parents and five sons. When he was in his early twenties, the brothers formed an a capella quintet and toured the U.S. singing gospel at various megachurches across the nation. He and his identical twin brother are the oldest. In my fictionalized stories of them, I called the brother characters Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Christopher’s character was named Joshua.

When Christopher told me that he had never kissed a girl before, I refused to believe him at first. I thought he must be kidding. Then, I believed him. He had been raised so conservatively Christian that he’d been miseducated into believing that sex before marriage and therefore any physical affection with a girl (or a boy for that matter) was a big-time sin.

I remember feeling pity. I had most intentionally lost my virginity at eighteen, whick took the duration of one skit on Saturday Night Live, in my college dorm room, on spring break of my freshman year at UT.

I remember telling Christopher that I would kiss him, so that he could experience his first kiss right away. He blushed and rejected the offer, but took my hand and held it the rest of the flight.

Here was this All-American, tan, tall, cute, funny guy who was obviously attracted to me, too. So what if he’s a Christian? I thought. So what if he literally believes in the Bible? Surely he’d get over that, because I sure wasn’t going to become a Born-again.

I began to see Christopher as a Christ figure, subconsciously. It had to be destiny. Same airport, same airline, same destination, same row. Our paths were meant to cross.

I went right home and Googled him. His brothers’ quintet had a website. From there, I linked to their church’s site and before long, found their belief statement.

We believe in the following conditions for salvation:

No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless that person is born again.

Our redemption has been accomplished solely by the blood of our Lord Jesus.

The new birth of the believer comes only through faith in Christ.

No other acts, such as confession, baptism, prayer, or faithful service are required.

Christopher’s twin Michael was a minister at a Baptist church, although their family claimed only to be “non-denominational” and “Bible-believing.” Despite his orthodox religiosity which clashed with my pagan yogic views and tarot reading habit, we somehow connected. In our brief overlap, he would alter my life and influence my journey more than any other guru, lover, friend, enemy or acquaintance.

When I probed, I discovered that Christopher sincerely believed that Earth’s Creation took seven days. Because the Bible told him so. He argued against evolution. Fossil record? Fake! He was passionately committed to saving his virginity for his future wife. So, wait. What? No making out? Not even kissing? Heresy! In retrospect, yes, I was painfully naïve. It took months after our relationship imploded for me to be able to apply the F-word to Christopher and his family. (Fundmentalists!)

Ecumenical became my favorite word. It was very important to me that multiple paths to Truth coexist. I’d been raised Catholic and baptized as an infant. Like a good little bride, I wore a frilly white dress for my first holy communion. The body and blood of Christ, Amen. I refused Confession, because even as early as 1990, it seemed weird to have to go into a small enclosed room and confess my sins to the Father behind the screen. He was just a priest after all, not God.

My most cherished memory of church was the one Sunday morning when I sat in the pew next to my friend Allison and for some silly reason, we both started giggling uncontrollably at an inappropriate time during the Mass. We were probably eleven years old, and thus capable of that particular brand of gasping, choking, girlish laughter that can only occur when you know you are eleven years old and supposed to be sitting quietly. It was an absolutely religious experience.

Aside from that one inexplicably fun time, Mass typically felt like longest, most boring hour of. superfluous standing and sitting, monotonous singing and robotic signs of the cross. I was always relieved when the priest stepped forward, spread out his robed arms and said, “Mass has ended. Go in peace!”

From an early age, I put Jesus up on a shelf instead of inviting Him into my heart. I had a problem with accepting a personal savior. I didn’t see a need for it. Yet, I gazed into Christopher’s blue eyes and thought, Okay, I could love Jesus for this.

At twenty four, I already had a decade of memories of dysfunctional dating experiences, ugly and unfortunate situations, heartbreak and rejection. One of my best girlfriends had a steady boyfriend in high school, another in college, and another after college, who was the best, and whom she married. My history was the opposite.

I mistook promiscuity for power. The ones I thought I loved didn’t love me. I settled for what was I could get: next to nothing.

With Christopher, all that changed on a jet plane. He held my hand. He stroked my hair. He spoke sweetly to me, but he could also be sarcastic and witty at times. He told me he loved me on a Sunday, after we’d known each other eight days. When I said it back, I really meant it.

I went to church with him. Wednesday Bible Study. Sunday Worship Service. I wasn’t into it. I didn’t feel the urge to get saved.

On our first date, Christopher came over to my house in Palo Alto. “The Eichler.” So named for its architect, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was sort of Brady Bunch style, but with a flat roof and walls of windows. For a year, I shared the house with five girls, Julie and Vanessa, plus one Asian-American Mormon violinist and one Yankee Jewish pothead. We were a very ecumenical household.

Christopher and I sat on the carpeted floor in my room and talked. We sat Indian-style, facing each other like kindergarteners. Later, lying on the bed, we kissed. Finally! He wasn’t so bad at it. The first night we slept in the bed together, we kept our clothes on. He seemed modest, shy about sleeping in my bed with me. I was absolutely infatuated.

In front of his family, he wouldn’t so much as give me a hug. Michael had just married a buxom young Christian girl, and they had supposedly not kissed until their wedding day. She was already pregnant when I met them. She and I had very little in common.

I rather enjoyed my new self-image as a rebellious wild child turned prudent Christian girlfriend. Especially because I didn’t have to be too prudent behind the closed bedroom door. Christopher may have been a virgin technically, but before long we were doing pretty much everything but having actual intercourse. A long way from chaste.

Palo Alto – July 2004

I quit drinking and smoking pot for Christopher, which was kind of a big deal. Fuck, I barely even cursed! The one time I covertly smoked, he smelled it on me and was displeased, but he forgave me.

He came with me to a yoga class once but was too weirded out by the Sanskrit chanting at the beginning to keep an open mind. Yoga was a false prophet in his eyes.

My parents flew out for the Fourth of July. During their visit, I went for a walk around the neighborhood with Christopher. We got into some trivial debate. Only you can’t debate a Fundamentalist. Their world is made up of black and white dualities: right/wrong, sin/salvation, heaven/hell; I live in Technicolor and well over fifty shades of gray.

I was drawn to and repulsed by Christopher for the same reasons — his immense faith and devotion. I wished that I could just surrender, become “Christian” and live happily ever after. But I couldn’t let go of yoga or my newfound Dharma. I remember hot tears bubbling up because I knew something had to give.

In my spiritual confusion, I asked Jesus to give me a sign. I hadn’t prayed to Jesus since the eighties, but that evening, I begged him for guidance.

That night, I sent Christopher to sleep at his grandmother’s house. It was to be our first night apart since he first came over to my house.

At two a.m., I was awoken by sirens. Dad had fainted in the bathroom. He was unconscious for a minute, enough to merit his transport to Stanford Hospital. I called Christopher and he immediately came over and drove me to the hospital. I couldn’t help but bring along my bible of the moment, a paperback book called Jesus and Buddha which places the remarkably similar words of the two spiritual teachers on facing pages.

Christopher liked to hark back to one of Jesus’s most famous quotes: “I am the way the truth and the light,” which he interpreted to mean The One And Only Way.

It cannot be denied that Christopher and his family rallied around my sick father as good Christians will. They offered prayers upon prayers, casseroles, company and compassion. They were wonderful.

The incident was a fluke. Dad felt better and was released the next day. If this was Jesus’s answer to my prayer, I interpreted it as a sign that Christopher and I were meant to be yoked together forever. I thought our love would transcend our immense differences in belief systems. I imagined traveling the world together, he as a missionary and me… well, that part was not completely clear. The wife of a missionary? The yoga-teaching wife of a missionary? The mindful Christian spreading the light of Christ and Buddha around the world?

Our last date was a funeral. His great uncle Ralph. I dug through my closet for my most conservative dress. The service was lovely and moving. Uncle Ralph was from a branch of the family tree that was not Fundamentalist.

Christopher and I got into an argument in the car on the way home from the funeral. Something to do with his assertion that Uncle Ralph was not saved, therefore he’d been turned away at the pearly gates. Followed by my assertion that that was bullshit, and nobody knows what happens after we die.

Our pink love bubble burst. My rose-colored glasses shattered. How could this ever work? Mr. Christianity with a Zen-loving, yoga-teaching hippie?

I decided that we needed to take a week apart. To reassess our relationship, separately. I drove down to L.A. to visit Rose. In a shoebox under the bed was I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a manifesto of sorts written by a young Christian named Josh Harris who was purportedly saving his virginity for marriage. I devoured the book and though I hated every sentence, it helped me understand the mind of Christopher a little better. Or so I thought. Here’s the book jacket summary:

Going out? Been dumped? Waiting for a call that doesn’t come? Have you tasted pain in dating, drifted through one romance or, possibly, several of them? Ever wondered, Isn’t there a better way? I Kissed Dating Goodbye shows what it means to entrust your love life to God. Joshua Harris shares his story of giving up dating and discovering that God has something even better—a life of sincere love, true purity, and purposeful singleness.

Still.  I was blinded by my overpowering lust for Christopher and my enjoyment of the new experience of actually having a boyfriend. I wanted to make it work. I ached for him in every moment of our separation. I wished we could go back in time and hijack the jet on which we met. Fly east, far away from his judgmental family, their ludicrous church and my incredulous friends. In my journal, I painstakingly boiled my spiritual belief system down to these eight bite-sized points:

awareness (all we have is now.)

compassion (all we need is love.)

peace (live and let live.)

being (i am.)

spirit (the holy spirit is beyond us and within us.)

unity (many paths, one truth.)

destiny (everything is meant to be. let it be.)

joy (neither cling nor reject. no attachment, no aversion.)

When we reunited at a Starbucks in south San Jose, it was immediately clear that his mind was made up. He could not accept me as I was and I had not changed enough to keep him. Thus, our romance ended as quickly as it had begun. I was shocked and appalled that it turned out to be nothing more than a summer fling. But the story was not over yet…

Palo Alto – September 2004

Happily distracted by my interfaith summer romance, I allowed myself to lose control of my finances. In other words, to go waaay further into credit card debt. By the end, I was paying rent with checks from my Visa accounts. Unfortunately, God doesn’t pay the bills. I kept sinking further into debt, which is easy to do in the Bay Area. Although I’d been making decent money substitute teaching, when the school year ended, my income source was gone. I landed a six-week summer gig as an ESL teacher.Until, the temp agency belatedly realized I did not have a teaching certificate and fired me. I filed a suit in the local small-claims court and lost.

I had to surrender my entrepreneurial yoga lifestyle. Thanks to craigslist, I landed a full-time, salaried job at a media firm in “The City.” SF. I was house-sitting in Mountain View at the time, which meant commuting for an hour each way each day on the 101 in rush hour traffic. I was so depressed and heartbroken that I could not bring myself to engage with my new colleagues. My mind was so sad and fuzzy that I could not grasp the tasks of my new job. I sat at my computer confused and listless, all day. I would lie in the backseat of my car at lunch, crying.

After my fourth day, I stopped at Safeway on the way home and bought an eighth of vodka, a Baby Ruth, a liter of Dr. Pepper, and a box of over-the-counter sleeping pills. I didn’t really want to die; I was just so lost that I didn’t know what else to do.

I drove to Stanford, parked in a vacant lot and walked around a field. I sat on the grass. Professors emerged from distant buildings. Couples strolled arm-in-arm. Life went on all around me. I rose to my feet abruptly.

Since my lease had ended a month prior, I’d been couchsurfing. Unrooted. Now, I was house-sitting Julie who was off gallivanting with the fabulous, flaming Mateo in Argentina.

I deliberately left my phone in the car. If I stopped too long to think about how my family or friends would react, I would be overcome with guilt. I didn’t want to hurt them. I did not relish in the fact that they would mourn me.

I turned on the bathtub faucet and stripped down to my bra and underwear. Too modest to die naked? I swallowed all twelve sleeping pills with big gulps of vodka and Dr. Pepper. I sunk face down into the steamy bath and ate the candy bar. My empty brown eyes did excrete some tear-like liquid, but my sobs were weak and silent. I hoped death would happen painlessly, like drifting off to sleep.

I woke up, face up, in a pool of tepid bathwater, chunks of vomit floating around me. I was alive—and drunk. I staggered to my feet.

It was four o’clock in the morning. I peeled my bra and underwear off, drained the tub, stepped back into the shower, rinsed myself with hot water, soap and shampoo, wrapped my body in a white towel and crawled into bed with my sopping hair.

I fell asleep flat on my stomach. When the alarm rang, I was still dazed and groggy from the pills, yet somehow dressed myself and got in the car to go to work. I looked at my phone. Seven missed calls, all from my mom. She’d uncharacteristically left three voicemails. I started the car but didn’t shift into gear. I called my mom and, between gasps and sobs, was able to form one sentence: “I need to come home.”

Austin, Texas – October 2004

I woke up one October morning, dismayed to find myself in the twin bed of my childhood bedroom on the second story of my parents’ suburban home and, upon looking out the window, even more dismayed to see a shiny, new “Re-elect George W. Bush” sign stuck in the perfect green grass of their front lawn. I marched right outside in my pajamas to remove and destroy it.

But national politics were the least of my problems.

I had survived my weak attempt to end it all. But I had no job, no money, no love, no God and no peace. I had lost touch with Yoga Schmoga. I had adored my existence in the Bay area and fervently believed that living the dream in California was my own personal manifest destiny. Being back in Texas, everyday life was my punishment, constantly reminding me of my utter failure to sustain my happy life on the West Coast.

I effortlessly landed a salaried job in Marketing and Communications in a gray building in a gray cubicle. I reconnected with Amanda and Jane. The three of us rented a house together in the coveted Hyde Park neighborhood in central Austin. I reentered the social scene with renewed appreciation for cursing like a sailor, drinking beer, getting high… on weed, and having plenty of casual sex. All the things I had given up for Saint Christopher. I decided to distract my depression with debauchery, and I partied with a vengeance.

Austin – April 2005

Christopher responded to my various attempts to reestablish communication with a tidy email. Subject line: Hello and Goodbye. He apologized “for not doing the least of what my good intentions were when we parted ways…and that is to not just disappear.” He told me that I “blessed” him and my family in so many ways and said he was “forever indebted” to me for all that I taught him about beliefs, commitment, faith, and hope. He went on:

Now, however, I am grateful for how it turned out. Even though we became quite close, I know it would never have been the best for either one of us to continue the relationship. I wanted to respect your beliefs while not compromising my own, and it became increasingly more difficult, then impossible, to do either very well. Thus, I am glad for the amicable way in which we did part.

He thanked me for being so understanding.

I am glad to hear that things have both settled down for you and picked up at the same time. I have prayed for you on several occasions, and so I am glad to hear you are doing well.

Oh, that pissed me off! And then, the killer:

I, too, am doing well. The best part of my life now is the reintroduction to Alicia, a girl I had known as a teller at my bank. We’ve found mutual attraction and friendship with close compatibility. I really think this is the girl I’ll spend the rest of my life with, and I’m so very happy. I know that you will understand that this changes the nature of our relationship, Michelle. As close as we were, it wouldn’t be fair to either of us to continue correspondence of any kind in the foreseeable future. I sincerely wish you well, however, and I hope that the next time our paths cross I’ll hear that you and your cowboy are teaching yoga on horseback… or something like that.

He signed off: Sincerely, Christopher

I did not understand the way things needed to be. When I called him at work one day, he revealed the fact that Alicia was, in fact, Catholic.

Well, that did it! In my deranged mind, I decided that having a big, colorful tattoo of the Blessed Mother in her Mexican form – la virgen de Guadalupe – on my left shoulder was going to help me win Christopher back.

Shortly thereafter, I had a nervous breakdown, caused in part by my experience with Christopher during our steamy, spiritually-confused summer together.

I don’t remember all the details of my break with reality, but Amanda, who was there to witness much of it, tells me I was convinced that I was pregnant with the second coming of Jesus Christ via immaculate conception. And that I was adamant about my plan to hitchhike to California in my bikini.

I spent ten days at the state mental hospital as men in white lab coats and sad-faced nurses cured my craziness with pharmaceutical potions.

I never saw Christopher again, but I did hear about his fate.

Two Years Later
Taos, New Mexico – March 2007

At a “Yoga as Muse” retreat, I spent five days practicing a technique that involves integrating specific yoga sequences with self-set writing intentions. At the time, I was working on a novel manuscript. As my “fiction” always tended to be, it was highly semi-autobiographical. One day, I was working with particular intensity on a scene in which my heroine, “Margot” was struggling to salvage her relationship with “Joshua,” a Christian.

After an intense day of writing and reading an excerpt aloud and getting feedback from the group, I went to sleep in my cozy cabin there at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. At three o’clock in the morning, my phone rang. When I looked at the screen, bleary-eyed, the caller ID told me it was Christopher calling from California. We hadn’t spoken in months.

I answered to discover it was not my ex-boyfriend but rather his fiancé, Alicia. Distraught, she asked me if I’d known anything about Christopher’s involvement with three particular girls from his church community.

“No. Those names don’t ring a bell,” I said. “Why? What’s going on?”

He’d been arrested. One of his brothers had turned him in to the authorities. Evidently, Christopher was a pedophile.

I was stunned. An emotional maelstrom swirled within me—disgust, pity, confusion, repulsion, and serious gratefulness that our relationship had ended as quickly and abruptly as it did.

The next morning, I woke up and wondered if the bizarre conversation had been a lucid dream or a crazy coincidence of writing and reality overlapping.

The next morning, I woke up and wondered if the bizarre conversation had been a lucid dream or a crazy coincidence of writing and reality overlapping.

Turns out, it was true. The self-proclaimed virgin had repressed his natural sexual instincts since adolescence – other than the two months he spent with me – but they’d emerged in detrimental, perverse acts with eight different girls he’d abused over the span of a decade, some of whom he had met while traveling with his gospel-singing brothers.

The next time I went out to visit friends in the Bay Area, Alicia and I met for lunch. We commiserated and chatted.She told me that Christopher had ultimately been convicted of eight counts of inappropriate involvement with a minor and sentenced to fifteen years at San Quentin. She had moved on too and was dating a new boyfriend who wasn’t a convicted felon.

Crazily enough, Christopher led me back to Jesus. Because of him, I reopened to the teachings of Christ, for the first time in my adult life. Yet, because I was unwilling to declare the Christian path to be The One True Path, I was unacceptable. I altered my spirituality because of him; his ridiculous religion remained unchanged.

I have gone from Catholic child to atheistic teen rebel to wannabe Buddhist to Buddhist Christian to agnostic to secular Buddhist.

Now, I avoid labels. I am nothing. I am here, now. I am breathing and trying my best to be kind to myself and everyone else.

Because of this experience, I read a slew of books like John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism and Bruce Bower’s Stealing Jesus. I found great solace in Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful work, Living Buddha, Living Christ. My attitude toward conservative Christians evolved from ignorant to cynical to hateful to judgmental to curious to compassionate to confused to indifferent.

Through this experience I have learned that it doesn’t help to judge the judgers. That Buddha and Jesus can live together in my heart, in perfect harmony.

Tonglen Meditation Instructions

{From Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber}


Visualize someone you know and love who is suffering — an illness, a loss, depression, pain, anxiety, fear. As you breathe in, imagine all of that person’s suffering — in the form of dark, black, smokelike, tarlike, thick and heavy clouds — entering your nostrils and traveling down into your heart. Hold that suffering in your heart. Then, on the outbreath, take all of your peace, freedom, health, goodness and virtue, and send it out to the person in the form of healing, liberating light. Imagine they take it all in and feel completely free, released and happy.

Do that for several breaths.

Then imagine the town that person is in, and on the inbreath, take in all the suffering of that town, and send back all of your health and happiness to everyone in it. Then do that for the entire state, the entire country, the entire planet, the universe. You are taking in all the suffering of beings everywhere and sending them back health and happiness and virtue.

The Ultimate Beginner’s Mind Guide to Buddha’s Eightfold Path

The foundational teachings of Gautama the Buddha are these Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life consists of suffering.
  2. We suffer because we cling.
  3. There is deliverance from this suffering.
  4. It’s called the Noble Eightfold Path.
For your entertainment and enlightenment, here are eight links to eight articles about the eight steps of the Eightfold Path. Which are actually not linear steps at all, but rather eight aspects to cultivate on the path toward full liberation.

Wise View: see the unfolding of Life.

Wise Thought, also known as “Right View,” is the beginning and the end of the path; it simply means to see reality as it is. We grasp the truth of impermanence and understand the law of karma and karmic conditioning. Teachers can show the way, but you must see it for yourself. According to Osho, “Knowing means you open your eyes and you see. Knowledge means somebody else has opened his eyes and he has seen and he talks about it, and you simply go on gathering information. Knowing is possible only if your eyes are healed, then it is authentically your experience.”

Wise Intention: surrender and be kind.

The Buddha explained Wise, or Right, Intention as threefold: the intention of renunciation, the intention of goodwill and the intention of harmlessness… as opposed to three parallel kinds of wrong intention, those governed by desire, ill will and  harmfulness. Wise Intention is exemplified in this short poem. After thieves broke into his hut in 1079, Monk Ryōkan wrote:

At least the robbers
left this one thing behind —
moon in my window.

Wise Speech: say what is true and useful.

Buddha’s four classical teachings on Wise, or Right, Speech are to: abstain from false speech; not slander others; abstain from rude, impolite or abusive language; and not indulge in idle talk or gossip. This is easier said than done! Remember the Buddha-like advice of 18th century essayist Samuel Johnson: “Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.”

Wise Action: do no harm.

Wise, or Right, Action means following the five precepts… but these are not the five Buddhist Commandments. Hold them lightly. Have discipline, but don’t beat yourself up when you falter. Stated positively, the five precepts ask us to (1) act with reverence for all forms of life, (2) be honest, (3) have integrity in relationships, (4) speak wisely, and (5) consume healthily.

Wise Livelihood: make work worthwhile.

The Buddha warns against careers that harm other beings and suggests that we avoid any occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action. He says, “The master of the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which; he simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.”

Wise Effort: never give up.

There are four Wise, or Right, Efforts, according to the dharma teachings: (1) Preventing the arising of unwholesome states; (2) Abandonment of any unwholesome states that have already arisen; (3) Cultivation of wholesome states that have not yet arisen; and (4) Keeping wholesome states that have already arisen. As wise old Sir Winston Churchill said, “Continuous effort—not strength or intelligence—is the key to unlocking our potential.”

Wise Mindfulness: be here now.

When the mind understands what causes suffering and what leads to happiness, mindfulness will naturally move toward happiness by letting go of clinging and craving. Paradoxically, this takes daily practice but also unfolds naturally. According to Mindfulness in Plain English, “Mindfulness alone has the power to reveal the deepest level of reality available to human observation. At this level of inspection, one sees the following: (a) all conditioned things are inherently transitory, (b) every worldly thing is, in the end, unsatisfying; and (c) there are really no entities  that are unchanging or permanent, only processes.”

Wise Concentration: focus on the path.

The eighth aspect of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, Wise Concentration, is to cultivate a mind that is not multitasking but rather directed toward a single-pointed purpose. There are two categories of concentration: one-pointed focusing and moment-to-moment concentration (i.e., mindfulness). All forms of meditation employ both concentration and mindfulness; what varies is the emphasis on each and the specific technique of instruction.