Meditating Through Choate

By Loren Olson, The News (Student Newspaper of Choate Rosemary Hall), April 13, 2007

Wallingford, Connecticut (USA) -- “Yo, isn’t Buddhism that religion where you, like, levitate?” Attempting to stifle a tremendous eye roll, I answered, “Close, but what we actually try do is meditate.” The senior concluded matter-of-factly, “Exactly what I’m saying! You meditate, and when you are, like, super-focused, you just—you know—lift off. I saw it on TV.” Seeing our conversation was headed for regions of idiocy yet unexplored, I excused myself and went to the servery.

I welcome you to shake your sage head in disbelief. I certainly used to. But after engaging in at least twelve variants of the aforementioned exchange, I have faith in ignorance. Mind you, these people are not, for the most part, village cretins. Not everyone has had the privilege of taking World Religions. Although the television bit was particular to this Ivy-bound ’07, the idea that Buddhists regularly bum about a few inches above the terrestrial plane is widespread.

Nor is it the only myth running through the public consciousness. I am emphatically urged to rub the belly of Buddha statues for luck. A few tee shirts bear the same slogan. My prayer flags have alternately been called demon-catchers and spirit-callers. More disturbingly, I have been asked whether all “fat dudes with huge ears” remind me of my “home boy.”

Quite frankly, the last is somewhat true. I am reminded of one of the eighteen original Arhats (think disciples) of Buddhism, Budai. Considering the popularity in this country of paunchy fellows liberally distributing goodwill (read Santa Claus) it is hardly surprising that the image of this portly devotee is better known that that of his teacher. Budai is worshiped as a deity of abundance in some sects, but to others is mostly lauded for his eccentric method of protecting the innocent: catching venomous snakes and removing their fangs. The laughing red-resin statue you have in your room is actually this Budai. My main “home boy,” as the local dialect would have it, is actually Siddhartha Gautama.

To cut a long history lecture short, Siddhartha was a prince in Lumbini (modern day Nepal) who became enlightened and is now universally recognized as the ‘Supreme Buddha.’ He is rarely depicted as corpulent, or even laughing, characterized instead by a serene smile. If your memory is truly elephantine, you may even recall Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha from third form required reading.

Getting back to belly rubbing, that tradition likely stems from the uniquely American desire to touch something to guarantee future gratification. Other examples of this behavior include early entrepreneurs inventing push-button elevators, Choaties stepping on Deerfield’s seal, and would-be “Yalies” rubbing the toe of Theodore Dwight Woolsey. Enough said. While we are debunking, prayer flags (colorful squares of cloth, block printed, attached along the top with a string) are meant for spreading good wishes, not for trapping fiends. They are situated so that the wind rushing through them can carry their mantras to all sentient beings, friends and enemies alike.

If that last bit is too mawkish for your jaded palate, you are not alone. Hearing the words compassion, peace, and love all in the same sentence may prompt headaches and inspire many Choaties to dash on their well-toned legs out of religion’s didactic reach. Throwing around a concept like optimism is akin having smallpox. Thus, Buddhism remains an ethnic rarity.

To be sure, the first of Buddhism’s Noble Truths is familiar: life is suffering. Ask any of the lachrymose juniors draped over their chairs how much they slept last night. (Inquire quietly; take two steps back, and look politely concerned). Working incredibly hard and playing fiercely on very little rest, especially when we most need sleep for growth and health, is a form of suffering. Look a Choatie in the eye as he resurfaces from the Russian Literature crypt. You could argue that education is not a privilege when, at 3 am on a Saturday, you are writing a research paper while your friends at home drunkenly back over curbs to the sweet sounds of Dave Matthews Band. To each their own. I have even heard that attending community lunches, or trying to find you backpack in a corral better suited for mice than for one burly PG, can be construed as suffering. Great and small, we are all acquainted with pain, or at the very least, irrational irritation.

But what about the other Noble Truths? It is reasonably intuitive that the cause of suffering is desire. If you didn’t want a spot on the lacrosse team, you wouldn’t be devastated if you were cut. If you didn’t expect a response that very evening to a certain Facebook post, you wouldn’t be disappointed when it failed to appear. Although we may cite copious examples of this second Noble Truth, the third is a bit harder to swallow: the cessation of desire brings about the cessation of suffering.

Although simple on a superficial level, the concept has jarring implications and is demanding to practice. At Choate, we are constantly told to build ourselves up with leadership positions, high marks, goals scored, so that we can get somewhere. Buddhism asks a very demanding question: Where are you going? The answer is a bit larger than a specific university, graduate school, or PhD program. Questioning your desires can be disturbing, particularly if they have been indoctrinated from a very early age. But it is important to find out while your mind is still young and malleable. The common misconception here is that ceasing to experience desire would lead to doing nothing. People I respect have told me countless times, “without a goal, you’ll go nowhere.”

A distinction must be made. You can be aware of what you would like to have happen, and put your energy and heat into it, without being attached a fixed outcome. Working really hard to get into a varsity squad, and not making it, does not then relegate the extra hours to “wasted effort.” It is instead that much stronger of a base to work off of. I am not saying we should necessarily broaden our goals, but hanging our self-judgment on one outcome is a dangerous game. Of course, changing your frame of reference can’t happen overnight. Buddhism is called “being on the path” for a reason: it takes a long time to stop desperately desiring. So though you can’t float out of be tomorrow with a tranquil smile, completely at peace with yourself, you could resist head-bashing over that B . It might not be enlightenment, but it will freak your parents out just as much.