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Life Lesson Learned By Flunking Out

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May 26, 2011 by wcobserver

Two weeks ago the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Buddhism, visited the University of Arkansas, a really big deal. In Western terms, that’s like the Pope coming for a visit. In 2000, I decided to go on a week-long retreat to a Zen Buddhist monastery in New York to learn meditation. Just to let you know up front, I flunked out after just three days!

​The adventure began when they thought Terry would be male with a male roommate. Then I learned the rules: no talking, no reading or writing, and one hour per day of quiet, private time. The entire day, 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., was spent in meditation. Days started with a slippered monk whisking down the halls clanging a triangle to alert everyone that exercise meditation started in half an hour. Exercise meditation consisted of very fast run-walking around the outside perimeter of the meditation hall. Other forms of meditation were eating, chanting, sitting, and working. My job was to scrub the kitchen floor while squatting like a baseball catcher! I’m not sure I could do that at 30, much less 50-something. However, the posture was not arbitrary. It was intended to focus the mind on the task at hand, and only that.

​The goal of Buddhism is to live a peaceful, happy life based on the principal of cause-and-effect. Achieving that life is partially gained through focusing totally on the task at hand — thus working in an awkward position, eating in silence, and running with concentration.

​Another aspect is to live with balance — therefore learning and meditating, exercising and eating, working and sleeping.

​Some interesting things happened during my short stay. In summer, the meditation hall is open-sided. During one session a squirrel wandered in, totally unconcerned with the silently sitting community of monks and visitors. The squirrel scampered about unnoticed by most. Finally the squirrel decided one woman’s robe, identical to everyone else’s, was interesting. He approached, stopping often to sniff the air. Then he touched her crossed leg. The woman started, causing the squirrel to jump and scurry out of the hall.

​The next day was an annual celebration of the founding of the monastery. We made a long, chanting procession to a commemorative monument lead by the head monk. As we slowly progressed, a doe emerged from the forest to walk beside the head monk, close enough to touch. She stopped when he did and then trotted back to the forest.

​Okay, truth time. I flunked out because I could not keep my mind still. Most people learning to meditate were counseled to count to 10 over and over to focus their minds. I was to count to one! Also my mind rebelled so strongly that I became ill and almost passed out twice. Once I had tears running down my face for no apparent reason. Many left before me, but nonetheless, I needed to leave. I was ashamed of my failure but determined to learn from the experience, so I stayed in a bed and breakfast on a farm for a few days to process the most intense days of learning in my life. I have learned to meditate and will perhaps go back to learn more.

​Contrary to popular belief, Buddhism is not a religion because Buddhists do not believe in a god. A Buddha is simply a wise teacher about the path to understanding. Buddhists consider Jesus a Buddha, and one can be both Buddhist and Christian with little or no conflict of ideas. I use many Buddhist ideas in my quest to be a good Christian.

 

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