“Tuck your legs under your pelvis, imagine there is a string running through your spine extending to the ceiling,” the meditation instructor suggested, sitting on an elevated platform in front of us. After properly seating myself on the cushion as comfortably as I possibly could on the laminate fake-hardwood floor, the goal then was to stop: Stop fidgeting, stop adjusting your butt, stop sniffling, stop scratching, stop looking at the clock and stop worrying that you are a couple classes away from being in a cult. These were some of the thoughts that sprouted while sitting in the Shambhala Buddhist Centre in Ottawa.
What brought us to the Buddhist centre that night was as diverse as the group. A hefty war veteran wanted help coming to terms with battle images that haunted his mind. A receptionist sought to quell the stress that comes with the job. A young couple that looked particularly out of place was there to “get in touch with their spiritual sides,” as they told us.
To the uninformed—or just plain uninterested—Buddhism is tantamount to worshiping a statue of an overweight man. At least, this was my early interpretation.
Perhaps the confusion about Buddhism stems from the fact that Buddhists do not worship a God or creator; in fact, Buddhists are rather indifferent to this concept. The starting point in Buddhism is that we’re filled with delusions and the purpose of meditation is to purify these thoughts. With enough practice, we can rid ourselves of delusions completely and realize enlightenment. According to Buddhism, this is the only way to know the true nature of reality. Buddhists also believe that there’s no satisfaction in materialism, in complete contrast to our consumer culture.
Were there any enlightened beings hiding in Ottawa? I set out to find devout practitioners.
Unlike other places of worship, Buddhist centres don’t stand out. Many are tucked away in office buildings, as is the Buddhist Centre where I met Lynn.
On the way up the stairs, I caught the second of three signs asking to “please take off your shoes.” This is important in a place where you tend to sit on the floor.
Lynn and I sat comfortably on chairs and discussed what brought her to Buddhism. It didn’t take her long to explain: “Get a job, get married, get a house. I was missing the whole point.” Lynn is about the age where women decide to cut their hair short. Lynn earned her gray hairs getting a graffiti-removers company off the ground with her now ex-husband. “He knew the product and I ran everything else.”
The death of the family dog was the first omen in Lynn’s life that things were slowly going downhill. Soon after, her brother died, and things began to feel “off” with her husband. “I guess when you do not get love at home you start looking for it in other places,” Lynn said, her eyes sad as she reflected on the breaking point of her marriage. Instead of wallowing in despair, Lynn used the change in her life as an opportunity to let go.
With her defunct marriage and old life behind her Lynn had learned that “we grasp onto external things for our happiness.” With this she had the idea to become a Buddhist monk if only they let her. “Fifty-five is the cutoff age, after that you are too old and they do not want you,” she joked.
There’s no age limit, however, to becoming a certified yoga instructor. After receiving her certification she began teaching yoga to cancer patients. “I believe yoga has curative properties that have not been explored,” she said.
This wasn’t the first time Lynn sought to improve herself. She explained she once had an addiction to self-help books. “I bought everything,” she admitted, “but Tony Robbins was just not cutting it.” Given the $10.4-billion-dollar self-help industry, it’s evident that Lynn was not alone in her search for a better version of herself. I continued my own search as I sought to learn more about Buddhism.
There’s a familiar kind of excitement walking into a mall, an excitement that contrasts Buddhism almost completely. As I entered Bayshore mall in Ottawa to find books on Buddhism my direct route to the book store was slowed by the engineered smells of Cinnabon and Starbucks. Still, I pressed forward shielding my diversion to other stores. I could only imagine sliding on a crisp new pair of shoes, holding a weighty tablet computer with a blindingly bright display and puncturing the cellophane on product x and inhaling its newness. Only a student budget cannot afford any of the above, and before I got to the bookstore I already felt the crash: wave after wave of indifferent faces, mothers dragging bags and screaming children, young salesmen with too much cologne and old saleswomen with too much makeup, the equally rehearsed interactions between cashiers and consumers. I didn’t need a Buddhist monk to tell me that there is no happiness here in the mall, but I met one anyways.
Walking into Joyful Land Buddhist Centre in Ottawa, I met Zopa, a tall, pale man in his fifties who exuded an aura of calm authority. He wore a yellow and maroon robe that caught me by surprise, despite having known he was a monk.
“We think we’re so smart,” he said. “I used to inject my psychology background into my Buddhist lectures only to find they were detracting from the true message in Buddhism,“ he admitted. The new resident monk at Joyful Land Buddhist Centre, Zopa studied for 10 years before becoming ordained in 2011. Before Buddhism, Zopa worked for nearly 15 years as a psychotherapist. “Psychotherapy works well,” he explained, “but only temporarily.”
Zopa’s transition to Buddhism was not sparked by crises like Lynn’s; instead it was gradual, albeit a little too gradual for his liking, “If I have to be reborn as a human again, I pray not to waste so much time! [I’ve] learned that temporary liberation is not enough, that is what I mean when I say I was wasting my time.”
Zopa is also not wasting his time on material goods, as he explained our insatiable desire to buy, “When you buy CDs, you need a CD rack, you need a car to go buy things, you need a bigger house to keep all your things”—this explained the zombies at Bayshore. I asked him what advice he would have for anyone caught in this cycle. “Take out all your stuff and lay it out in front of you and ask: Have any of these things made me happier?” I knew my answer, and I suspect it’s the same for everyone.
Still, we will find ourselves driving on the same streets, walking in the same malls, searching for things that we hope will bring us happiness. Only the search never ends, and so too does the strain on our souls and the planet. Taking a moment to stop I could begin to see how “it is all in the mind,” as Zopa explained.
Read another article on experiencing Buddhism in FROM PAIN TO PEACE: A Vipassana meditator’s experience doing a 10-day retreat>>
image: Juan francisco (Creative Commons BY)