James grew up in Los Angeles, specifically in East LA and El Monte, about ten miles east of LA. He is a second-generation Angeleno, with his parents and grandparents having deep roots in the area. His grandparents immigrated in the 1940s, his maternal side from Mexico and his paternal side from Ecuador. His parents grew up during the Civil Rights era, experiencing significant societal changes, including school segregation and inequality, which influenced their distrust of the public education system. Consequently, James’ parents worked extra jobs to send him and his siblings to Catholic schools.

James’ father served in the military, being drafted to Korea, and his uncles served in Vietnam, adding to the family’s diverse experiences. James attended Catholic schools from first grade through high school, which instilled discipline and a sense of community but also imposed a rigid and fear-based religious education. This environment did not support James’ exploration of his sexual orientation, leading to internal conflict and fear.

It wasn’t until college that James began to reconcile his identity, discovering and embracing Chicano, African American, Native American, and queer histories, which he had not been exposed to in his earlier education. This period of self-discovery was both exciting and challenging, as it led to difficult conversations with his parents, who viewed his newfound perspectives as rebellious.

James’ search for a spiritual home led him to explore Buddhism in his 20s. Initially self-taught through books and videos, he was particularly drawn to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. It wasn’t until 2018-2019 that he discovered Won Buddhism, which resonated deeply with him. The inclusive and non-judgmental community at the LA temple and the One Institute Graduate Studies program provided a safe space for James to explore his identity and spirituality freely.

Today, James practices Won Buddhism, finding it a nurturing environment that allows him to grow spiritually and authentically.

Why Buddhism

James is the only Buddhist in his Latino Chicano family in Los Angeles, a city deeply rooted in the Latino Spanish-speaking community and Catholic traditions. Many people in his personal and professional circles are curious about his attraction to Buddhism, as it is culturally uncommon for Mexicans or Ecuadorians to be Buddhists. James appreciates cultural Catholicism, particularly its iconic figures like the Virgin Mary, but he doesn’t practice Catholicism.

James explains that Buddhism has taught him to live his best life by being present and letting go. Buddhism, for him, is about awakening and being mindful of the present moment, rather than being consumed by worries about the past or future. He emphasizes that constantly dwelling on past mistakes or future uncertainties prevents one from truly experiencing life. By practicing mindfulness, James has learned to fully engage with and appreciate each moment, whether it’s a simple task like washing dishes or a more significant activity like spending time with loved ones.

James also shares that Buddhism has helped him let go of attachments and understand the impermanence of life. This perspective allows him to see impermanence as a blessing, providing opportunities for growth and renewal. He draws inspiration from nature, particularly trees, which shed their leaves and regenerate, symbolizing the continuous cycle of letting go and growth.

By embracing these teachings, James feels a sense of freedom and interconnectedness with the world around him. He encourages others to explore Buddhism, inviting them to join him in meditation and practice. He believes that by being present and letting go, anyone can live their best life and experience the same sense of peace and fulfillment that he has found through Buddhism.


James reflects on his journey with meditation and Buddhism, particularly the early years in his 20s and 30s when his practice was inconsistent and undisciplined. He lacked a clear understanding of meditation’s purpose and benefits and felt a strong need for guidance and a teacher. Despite reading about the benefits of meditation, James didn’t experience them and felt a deep thirst to understand more, driven by his desire to alleviate his suffering and find a meaningful path.

The recognition that suffering is a universal part of life and that Buddhism offers a way out through the Eightfold Path was pivotal for James. He grew tired of the internal oppression and the hollow external fixes like material wealth and leisure activities, which only exacerbated his suffering. The loss of his cousin to suicide in 2014 deepened his resolve to find a way to end his own suffering. Despite his external successes, including multiple degrees and a fast-track career, James felt a profound emptiness and depression.

James was drawn to Won Buddhism because of its focus on integrating Buddhist teachings into daily life without rigid rituals or ceremonies. The core teaching of Won Buddhism, the threefold study, resonated deeply with him. This study involves the cultivation of spirit (samadhi), inquiry into human affairs and universal principles (prajna), and mindful choice and action. These principles provided a practical framework that helped James transform his life.

The cultivation of spirit through meditation allowed James to understand his Buddha nature, which he initially thought was unattainable. The inquiry into human affairs encouraged him to question and investigate, empowering him to test and understand Buddhist teachings for himself. The focus on mindful choice and action taught him to make decisions that lead to freedom rather than suffering.

James likens his Buddhist practice to athletic training, drawing parallels between training the body and training the mind. This approach helped him understand the power of the mind in creating both suffering and freedom. Recognizing this, he committed to living mindfully and following the Eightfold Path.

In 2021, feeling ready to fully commit to Buddhism, James took on a Dharma name, “Won Do,” meaning “round, complete, perfect path.” This name symbolizes his journey towards mental freedom and completeness. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, he celebrated this commitment with his family and Sangha members over Zoom.

James now integrates these teachings into his daily life, finding motivation and purpose in his Dharma name and the principles of Won Buddhism. His practice continues to shape his outlook and actions, driving his ongoing journey towards truth and freedom.

Professional Impact

James wants to dispel the common misconception that Buddhism requires extreme renunciation or isolation from society. Instead, he highlights that Won Buddhism, founded by Zen Master Sotasan in rural Korea in the early 1900s, embraces scientific innovation and materialism. This approach teaches that these advancements are not inherently bad but can be beneficial tools if used mindfully and for good.

James appreciates that One Buddhism encourages using all available resources positively. This perspective has transformed his understanding of being a Buddhist, showing that one can enjoy scientific benefits and material goods while being mindful of their use. The practice of Buddhism in his daily life has brought purpose and intent to his actions.

A key teaching James reflects on is a phrase from the Dharma of Timeless Son, emphasizing that every sensory condition is an opportunity for practice. This principle has changed his outlook, making everyday interactions and tasks his training ground. By being aware of his emotions and thoughts as they arise, he uses mindfulness and meditation to manage his responses and actions.

James applies these principles in his work in the public school system. As a former middle and high school teacher in South Central Los Angeles, he faced significant challenges, including losing 22 students to gun violence. Now, as a trainer of future school principals, he integrates mindfulness practices into his training, encouraging leaders to be present, mindful, and compassionate in their decision-making.

He starts meetings with moments of silence and mindful meditation, helping his team find strength in stillness and presence. James believes that effective leadership requires a clear, calm mind and the ability to respond thoughtfully to various challenges. By teaching mindfulness, he aims to improve the confidence and decision-making of school leaders.

James also works with young people, teaching them to pause and cultivate stillness when agitated. He helps them understand and manage their emotions, making the connection between training the mind and training in sports. This analogy resonates with many students, especially black and brown boys, who see mindfulness as a skill akin to athletic training.

James finds it inspiring to see young people adopting these practices naturally, even if they don’t realize they’re engaging in Buddhist practices. His calm demeanor and effective mindfulness techniques have earned him respect and admiration, further validating his efforts to bring the Dharma into everyday life and work.

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