I sucked at Buddhism last night

Max, 2013/05/02 

It was the Wednesday night dharma talk at the Pt. Montara lighthouse. The teacher was a guy who has talked there countless times. He’s a wonderful human being who counsels the dying and exudes compassion. He was the first teacher I met and has often brought me peace of mind in trying times. Last night, however, I just wasn’t buying it.

Things started going off the rails early when he discussed the constant struggle we have with suffering by using the example of opening the refrigerator to get the cream for your coffee, but there is no cream. This causes a mild form of suffering that we need to be aware of because it’s the seed of a constant stream of suffering we must endure throughout our day and on and on to the end of our days.

Talk about first world problems! Maybe it set me off because, for one, I can’t relate at all. I enjoy my coffee black. The bigger deal to me though, is that I’m becoming more and more conscious of the plight of those who really are suffering due to the first world lifestyle. Lester Brown’s World on the Edge, an assessment of the deeper and deeper shit we’re getting into worldwide as a result of climate change, is seriously getting under my skin. The biggest takeaway so far is that climate change is having real effects in the world already but it’s those stuck in the far corners of the world who are feeling those effects thus far and it’s typically in the form of starvation and disease due to failing crop yields and lack of fresh water. That and it’s mostly innocent children who suffer first. Not to mention all the threatened species other than dear humanity.

Another factor springs from the event I attended with my family a week ago that resulted in my acquisition of Mr. Brown’s gloomy tome. It was the pre-screening of Do the Math at the monastic residence of a Buddhist nun who’d been awakened into activism on behalf of the environment. Ayya Santussika had discovered the cause through others in her order who had been part of the recent mass protest in Washington (the one Aldus attended). It had ocurred to me after watching the movie that I might bring the issue to the attention of my own little sangha in Montara. The nun agreed it was a great idea and even suggested a willingness to make the trip out and give a talk about it. I contacted the folks in my sangha who schedule the speakers and assumed they’d embrace the idea. Instead they threw cold water on it. They didn’t want to distract from the core mission of the sangha, which is apparently to alleviate the suffering of those who don’t have cream for their coffee.

It really makes me think that Buddhism, at least in its common western form, is mostly about feeling better about being so full of ourselves that we can’t give a crap for anybody else but our own little community of relatively rich and comfortable, well-fed and secure fellow human beings. As our teacher had us close our eyes and asked us to feel compassion for our friends and loved ones in their creamless anguish I was brought very near to the point of standing up and screaming at the group in outright anger. No, goddamit! I don’t care about any of you at all right now. I’m mostly consumed with concern for the hell we’re unleashing upon the world in the form of starvation, habitat destruction, and all the wonderful adventures to follow.

I held my tongue and stayed outwardly peaceful, but I did not leave the group last night a happy and content soul. It helps a little to get this out. Thanks for listening.


  1. Max wrote,

    Of course, as religions go, one can do a lot worse than Buddhism.

    Comment on 2013/05/02 @ 8:44 am

  2. Jeff L wrote,

    I caught your comment at DKos and was interested. I speak with Hindu and Buddhist friends often – though I’m Christian (definitely not evangelical, more a marginal Catholic if you want a label).

    I’m a little confused about part of your writeup. As you start it I thought that perhaps the speaker was talking about one’s own suffering and maybe leading to how it disturbs one’s own sense of clarity, peace or mindfulness. I thought that perhaps his example was maybe a clue that our own perceived sufferings are not as big as we sometimes think. Or that even a small thing can grow into something damaging to ourselves.

    And you’re relating something more akin to when Gautama first went out and saw disease, suffering and death of others.

    I don’t know the answer but I think there is an internal and external component to religious faith and both have a role. Some groups may favor one over the other in their study, practice and lifestyle, but we can’t escape either. There is a place for meditation or prayer and one for global causes.

    Peace to you.

    Comment on 2013/05/02 @ 9:49 am

  3. byronius wrote,

    My son tends to remind me of this exact phenomenon with the phrase ‘first world problems’.

    Mitt Romney also suffers. I understand his car elevator takes almost ten seconds to reach ground level.

    Pray for him.

    Comment on 2013/05/02 @ 11:45 am

  4. Anonymous wrote,

    Don’t worry – be happy!

    Comment on 2013/05/02 @ 12:44 pm

  5. Max wrote,

    That’s great. Jeremy taught me the expression!

    BTW – cross-posted this at DailyKos. First diary I’ve written there in years and received a lot of feedback (126 comments at last check).

    Comment on 2013/05/02 @ 12:55 pm

  6. Max wrote,

    Re #2

    Jeff, thanks for the comment. I’m still a little stunned at how many thoughtful comments there were to that post.

    I think you’re exactly right about what the teacher was trying to say. With 24 hours or so to contemplate it – along with all the great feedback at DKos – I don’t have nearly the same reactive state of mind. He was just trying to do what he finds himself to be effective doing in this life. I was just reacting based on the heavy stuff I’d been reading on climate change and a sense of futility in getting others to share the burden… yet.

    It’s really interesting how you segue in what the Buddha saw outside the palace. The shared attribute is a sudden sense of horror. I’m not da man to go do the ascetic thing do. Not that strong, no sir.

    Comment on 2013/05/02 @ 8:07 pm

  7. Anonymous wrote,

    re: “The shared attribute is a sudden sense of horror. I’m not da man to go do the ascetic thing do. Not that strong, no sir.”

    I must confess I do not understand what positive good doing the ascetic thing contributes to removing the horror that reportedly triggered it. At least on the world scale. True, famous people often get followings as did Ghandi but I know kids today that have no clue who Ghandi was or did and when you tell them their reaction, “well, that was dumb’ or ‘oooo, gross.’ In a way it seems a little selfish or vain even – as an attention getter, look at me, look at what I am doing. Just saying, there are a multitude of active things more beneficial in a physical direct sense and sharing an ascetic experience just seems to defeat the point along with seeming a little absurd.

    Comment on 2013/05/03 @ 6:24 am

  8. SkyHarbor wrote,

    Anonymous: I disagree. ‘Ascetic’ is the wrong term to apply to Buddhism. Contemplating the ‘impermanence’ of all things strikes me as a reasonable response to unfathomable horror, especially such a mindless waste of humanity.

    Max is simply sharing what he felt and thought. I see nothing absurd or vain in it. [IMHO]

    Comment on 2013/05/04 @ 11:26 am

  9. aldous wrote,

    i wonder if ayya santussika simply represents a more relevant strain of buddhism, one that is able to get out of the head and into the world? however, i thought that all strains, including the one practiced at your sangha, were about accepting the pain of the world. the suffering currently being endured by humans and many other species as a result of climate change is hard to face. we don’t want to think about it because it hurts too much. but face it we must if we wish to be whole persons. perhaps you could suggest the value of contemplating the suffering caused by climate change as a theme for a future sangha. one week, no cream, another week, climate change. if they say no i’d like to know why.

    Comment on 2013/05/09 @ 4:55 pm

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