Dharma Talk

Hi, good morning. This is my dharma talk. It will be brief, and I’ll only really focus on the dharma that I’ve experienced in my life, so I invite you to take three deep breaths. Be generous to yourself in these moments, extending your heart as wide as it can. Relax, and I’ll talk a bit about my experiences.

I grew up in a happy home, though I was often abandoned, in a small suburb of Dallas, yet it was very conservative, which I couldn’t really relate to. I had a lot of friends, but initially I always tried to fit in. I played football, went to very conservatively social events, and struggled a bit with my conflicted, at the time, class identity. My Mom grew up in government housing with a single mother in the mid century, something that wasn’t so common in those days, yet she never really noticed it. My Dad was an economics student who had turned to running his own business. I watched anime, made art and music, and had an essentially middle class upbringing.

Sometime in the mid 90s, like so many kids at the time, I started getting into grunge music and joined the cultural movements at that time by simply adopting particular Seattle inspired aesthetics: paintings influenced by the art on Dinosaur Jr. album covers, slightly Gothic inspiration. This did not sit well with the teachers at the time in the conservative environment, and at one point I had so many detentions, literally for keeping my shirt untucked, that I had been told that I would spend up to a year in detention. It was a very unusual system, but I know that a lot of people experienced things like this in their schools at the time. Expelled for wearing band T-shirts, things like that. I hope that has changed by now. We still live in an unjust society, but I feel that our country is a bit kinder than it used to be.

That’s a lot of background, but I needed to speak briefly about it in order to show my path toward entering a Steiner school after school absences and detention had started to cause significant damages. I loved this school. Set in an architect’s home, it was radical and unusual. I felt totally free to express my realities. It was all self paced. I loved geometry, and it was mostly secular, but we had one class called “Life Skills” where I was introduced in just one session to meditation. I laughed it off but it really profoundly changed my life, yet I didn’t know it. I spent my two years there writing, making music and art, going to punk shows and poetry readings, and it was a beautiful time.

I’m not sure how I did this, but at one point my Mom put a yearbook tribute where I was sitting on a rock and meditating somewhere. I don’t remember where this photograph was taken. It stuck with me. 

Years later, in college, I don’t even know why, possibly due to my first panic attack, I started deeply learning about Buddhism. Every night I went to sleep with an audio book by the Dalai Lama, for months. Later when we moved to the bay area, I went deeper, and again, I didn’t really understand why I was doing this. It was just happening. I remember very clearly one afternoon where I meditated in the clear sunlight in the apartment. It was a profound experience that deeply changed my life. Around this time I realized that I identified as queer, yet there was no one to talk to about it. I had a band that I thought was radically feminist, and I have almost always identified with both genders.

Some time later, after fearing for my life, and as a result of a drunken moment texting in a car to facebook, when I was very frightened, I was placed within a very frightening mental hospital. And all the suffering within it’s halls opened my compassion and sadness. It was the most profound experience of my life for quite awhile. I met so many people there coping with devastation, and I realized at a certain point that suffering was endless. Since I was intoxicated when I was brought there, but completely sobered up by the time I arrived, I was completely  aware, and it was traumatic. I met people who had multiple suicide attempts, experienced domestic violence, and severe schizophrenia. People were assaulted in the hallways. Someone tried to attack me while I was sleeping. I also started experiencing online harassment, and it was so negative that I actually, as a very peaceful individual, started to think that I actually was a terrible person. It took years to recover, but I did, through an intensive Buddhist practice centered on self compassion.

Within a year I began searching in earnest through the dharma. I took meditation classes anywhere I could, and Berkeley had quite a few. I studied at Nyingma Institute, The Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, Shambala, and in small church settings. On every trip south of the bay, I visited the Pao Hua Buddhist Temple in San Jose, and the Land of Medicine Buddha, where I accidentally sat in on a class about dependent origination. Yet nothing really clicked until I started studying Zen at the Berkeley Zen Center. While I’ve studied many spiritual paths, this was a family I could truly share my experiences with. Within a few months I then started at the San Francisco Zen Center, where I joined this Sangha for the two month practice period studying Bodhisattva archetypes. I still was undergoing harassment at the time, but I stuck with it, no matter what. I remember most profoundly the moments at Medicine Buddha, where there was a small temple in the mountains with a giant Buddha statue, and I was the only one there on every trip. I can’t describe my experiences there. It’s impossible, it is almost wordless.

That brings me to where I am in my practice right now. I’ve been healing a broken foot for almost two months now, and this is where my life was most profoundly changed. The result is the book I shared with you, Light Fields, which I won’t summarize, but sitting here on the couch, and meditating for hours is where I profoundly and resolutely engaged with dharma and the way. 

Of all of the Buddhist archetypes, I relate most strongly to Guan Yin and Avalokiteshvara, Samantabhadra, and Milarepa, a combination of ideals from many traditions. In Guan Yin I have always sought refuge in peace and compassion, and love. In Avalokiteshvara, compassion and the art of listening, in Samantabhadra, the ideal of the hidden Bodhisattva, and in Milarepa, a profound connection to Buddhist poetry, and a unity with the suffering of people who have been incarcerated, misunderstood, wrongly imprisoned, and suffering from mental illness. I suffer from deep, clinical anxiety, and the compassion both for self and others in unity, is how I guide my way.  

In this short talk I hope this gives you a glimpse, however slight, into my experiences that led me on the path to the dharma, and I think it’s a story of hope, resilience, peace and love, even in the most dire of circumstances. Thank you for your time. I am so grateful for all of you.

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