Two things have happened recently that left me no choice but to write this article. The first was a letter I received from an old girlfriend whom I had put on the Inquiring Mind mailing list and who was receiving the paper each time it came out. Until recently I assumed that there was so much interesting and often profound reading in each issue that even my old friends, who had no regular spiritual practice, would be delighted to receive it. That myth was shattered when I received a letter with a post script: “Please stop sending that weird cult paper from the Far East. I didn’t understand most of it and there isn’t even a fashion or entertainment section.” The other bit of feedback that prompted this article, from which there is now no turning back, was from my brother who informed me he did most of his reading in the bathroom and there was precious little in the Mind that he considered appropriate for that activity.
I did some reflecting after hearing from those two, and maybe they have a point. We have article about the meaning of life, the meaning of the meaning of life, and what we mean by meaning. If you know what I mean. We have a practice column, beautiful poetry and an array of different teachers thoughtfully explaining how there are many paths to enlightenment, only one path to enlightenment and no path to enlightenment. There’s even been an occasional scandal or two, but on balance I would have to agree, not much for the common folk, the lay public—those few readers out there who have not attended a retreat, are not therapists, and some who don’t even have their MFCC. In short, I’m tired of hearing that my friends are using the Mind for kitty litter.
I’ve also been agonizing for quite some time about how to teach dharma to people who couldn’t care less. I’ve cornered more old friends (now no longer in touch) than I care to remember and insisted that they listen to the “truth.” While it’s probably true that during a TV commercial or halftime of a football game was not the best time for a dharma talk, my friends did seem somewhat interested at the time. I even sent a few tapes of Joseph Goldstein’s talks down to my family in Miami. My cousin Morty tried listening to them at the beach, but while the Buddha’s words may have survived 2500 years, the “Four Noble Truths” couldn’t get past the first high tide at the Fountainbleau. My brother did listen to half of “Bare Attention” by the pool last summer, but he spilled his tanning lotion on the “Noble Eightfold Path” and, well, you get the idea. And, if you think Christopher Titmuss’s talks are sometimes hard to follow, try listening to one (as did my Uncle Irving) after you’ve polished off a pitcher of frozen banana daiquiris.
If you have sat a ten-day retreat or read Joseph Goldstein’s Experience of Insight or Stephen Levine’s A Gradual Awakening, you’re in the clear. I’m not talking about you. My problem is I’m out there in the real world, in elevators, bars and bus stops trying to spread the dharma to the masses. It’s one thing to give a dharma talk to a hundred yogis who’ve come to listen, paid the price, sat in silence all day, and, if the truth be told, would line up to hear someone recite the New York City phone book in Sanskrit. That’s easy. But just try getting a word in edgewise with my Aunt Hedy. You know my Aunt Hedy, everyone has an Aunt Hedy. She’s always been fifty pounds overweight, dresses like she’s nineteen instead of sixty-three, shaves off her eyebrows and then paints them back on an inch and a half higher than they’re supposed to be, so she appears not unlike a parrot in heat. (I don’t judge, merely observe.) She is, of course, also the self-acclaimed foremost authority on everything.
The last time I was visiting my mother in Miami I had to call Aunt Hedy and the conversation. went like this:
“Hello Aunt Hedy, how are you?”
“Don’t ask. How’s by you, Ronald? I hear you’re into Buddy now.”
“No, Aunt Hedy, that’s Buddha.”
“Buddy, Buddha, what’s the difference—you got a real job yet?”
I’ve been to a half dozen retreats. I’ve heard lots of questions. I’ve never once heard anybody ask Joseph or Jack Kornfield if he had a real job. They want to know about the “Seven Factors of Enlightenment,” “Concepts and Reality,” anicca, dukkha and anatta . . . . Aunt Hedy didn’t ask me about any of those.
Now, in all fairness, it’s not just Aunt Hedy, and my technique may need a little polishing. Basically, I come from the Don Rickles School of Dharma Talks. Its premise is, “I f you don’t know dharma you don’t know nothing.” And I don’t really care what Aunt Hedy thinks. I know what Aunt Hedy thinks. I’ve heard what Aunt Hedy thinks my whole life. Aunt Hedy thinks she knows it all. She thinks she’s heard it all and there’s nothing new under the sun. And besides, she usually adds, “if you really loved your mother you’d give up this nonsense and move back to Miami.” It’s at this point in the discussion that I usually begin my dharma talk.
I’m also aware that some of my teachers might have some reservations about having me act as a representative of the highest truth and quoting the Third Zen Patriarch to people on the check-out line at Lucky’s. Knowing the depth of my practice and my sincere and profound attachment to other people seeing everything as I do, there are probably some teachers who might take exception to my traipsing around the country presenting myself as a certified dharma teacher with a Masters in Vipassana. To those teachers I say, from the bottom of my heart, lighten up.
I know Joseph would like me to sit a longer retreat (as if ten days ain’t long enough, give me a break.) Joseph thinks there are deeper levels of samadhi, jhana states I haven’t touched and a more complete understanding I could only get by sitting a three-month course. Jack thinks there’s still some work to do in the areas of compassion and humility (moi?). Jamie Baraz begs me to sit and practice more metta meditation every time he sees me. Alan Clements, bless his heart, only wants to know my lineage. The boys from Burma are big on lineage. They want to see those credentials, babe. Unless you’ve had malaria and severe gastrointestinal cramps in Burma and can report every spasm to the Sayadaw, you can’t join their club. Another rite of passage is sitting absolutely still while ten thousand mosquitoes suck your blood and dance in your nostrils. And they wonder why attendance is down.
But I take pride in my small victories. Like the fact that I’m now giving my unsuccessful dharma talks to semi-celebrities. I recently flew down to Los Angeles for the weekend. and found myself seated next to a rather well-known political satirist and comedian who, in the interest of decency and fairness, not to mention libel suits, I’ll call Ed. A few years ago, when I was doing some stand-up comedy, I was an opening act for Ed at a small club in Northern California.
We were in the middle of the usual discussion on drugs, sex and rock and roll when it occurred to me that it was time to introduce Ed to Dharma 101/Stark Reality. Not only did I have a copy of Nisargadatta’s I Am That in my carry-on bag but an original tape of Joseph’s talk on “Concepts and Reality” from the spring of 1982 (the Gettysburg Address of dharma talks) on Maxell UD-XLII Cr02 tape with the “Truth of Suffering and Compassion” on the flip side. Was I ready or what?
I picked my spot and about halfway between San Jose and Santa Barbara I let him have it. I opened with a series of quotes from Joseph, Nisargadatta, Ram Dass, and Suzuki Roshi, took a breath and closed the show with that old classic I love to use with beginners: “The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” I leaned back in my chair and waited for Ed to beg me to continue. Instead, he mumbled something about gas pains and headed for the back of the plane.
After fifteen minutes I realized that we were about to land and Ed wasn’t coming back. I found him in the last row of the plane, fast asleep, with his face buried in a pillow and a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging from his call button. I left him a note with my phone number and said that I’d be happy to continue my talk anytime. I guess Ed’s been pretty busy, as I haven’t heard from· him yet.
I’ve been told stories about how they hate you when you’re a Buddhist, but love you when you’re a Buddha. Perhaps, if I waited to be asked, if I gave the other person some space instead of charging in with my own point of view . . . I’ll bet if I listened more, was more patient and tolerant myself . . . That’s it! If I expressed the dharma through my being, by being more generous, kind and compassionate instead of just talking about it. If I become more open and vulnerable and less judgmental and self-righteous then perhaps . . . Naaah, that’ll never work.