I grew up in a household that exposed me to Catholicism. I became a Catholic as a teenager, by my own choice. But my relationship to Catholicism started to change when the scandals about the abusive priests came out. As time went on, while I appreciated many of the teachings of the church, I didn’t believe in the worship of God anymore.
I became exposed to the dharma when I was dealing with chronic pain. I was required to meditate as part of my treatment, and at the time I couldn’t relax any of my muscles. But the meditation helped me learn to relax. My massage therapist told me it was as if I’d switched bodies. That change was so profound that I got curious about what else meditation could do for me.
I actually came to Buddhism kind of kicking and screaming. I was dealing with some chronic pain, and I was assigned meditation as a way to learn how to relax my body. And I didn’t want to do it. I was convinced I’d be terrible at it and I’d lie on the floor on my yoga mat. Totally miserable. And the thing is, it transformed my body at the time. I didn’t know how to relax any muscles. And through the work that I did with that therapist, a surge of people to relax. So I said, What else can I do with this? And I learned some Buddhist meditation techniques. And then I started getting interested. That’s how I that brought me into the Dharma. So I think what attracted me to the lineage, the group that I belong to, which is Trevor Noah, is that our founders on Garage Charter had studied with a lot of different traditions and. He felt that there were two things that were going to be difficult about bringing the drama to the West because he studied in India and Asia and Southeast Asia, and he felt that one of the things was that along with the Dharma and the practices that we all have in common comes a lot of cultural traditions, which we don’t necessarily need to adopt in order to be Dharma practitioners. And so I think he also wanted to work closer to some of the original, suchas the Pali canon. Specifically, he felt was really important. And I think I felt the same way that I felt that if I joined a different kind of Buddhist community that it would be disingenuous to adopt a culture that isn’t my own as part of being a Dharma practitioner. So that’s a dreamy territory right now. In addition to that tree right now has a big focus on creative and artistic expression, which is not necessarily unique, but certainly not as common. And for me, that’s been a really great part of my practice. So.
Tree, what used to be called the friends of the Western Buddhist order, by the way? For those of you who don’t know, they changed the name when we started having a lot more members in India and in other parts of the world. And the way that practice happens varies center by center, just like I think anywhere else. But Tree Ratna is a lay order. So there are people who take on higher precepts and there are people who become order members. But it’s not a hierarchical order. All of the order members, once you become an order member, are. Everything is done by consensus, so are our senators are usually gatherings of what we call friends. And those are the people who are maybe not order members. Maybe haven’t even committed to a Buddhist lifestyle, but they attend and usually they involve meditation communally. A dharma talk of some type, some chanting, sometimes pujas for special celebrations. And in our case, we have a very small sangha. So in Boston, there’s a lot of choice. Our Sangha is probably around 15 regular members and then other people who come in here and there, and we meet in a small room at the Boston Theosophical Society. So our practice is more we come together, we do a tiny bit of chanting to just set the tone. We meditate and then we discuss a book that we read as a group. So it’s an opportunity to really give each other space and practice the right listening part of right speech. So instead of listening to someone who is an authority, we all talk about what questions we had, what things really struck us and inspired us in the reading. And there are some other groups that get to do that. We also meet. We have a group of more committed practitioners called mantras, which just means friend in Sanskrit and we meet for Dharma study twice a week, twice a month. Other groups might meet more regularly. And that’s the thing, but I don’t know as well about the other lineages is that I feel like some lineage is a very teacher focused and less like. Community of your peers focused. Whereas ours is very Songer focused, so obviously you have the people who are more experienced who are leading the Sangha or leading the retreat, but there’s a lot of focus on spiritual friendship and really engaging with each other. So we don’t, you know, even in the bigger centers where maybe they’re just doing a puja that night, people get to know each other. You know, they don’t just go in practice and then leave, or at least maybe in some centers they do. But there’s a big emphasis on joining the smaller groups and getting to know people and connecting. And obviously a lot of our some of our retreats are totally silent. So you don’t have as many people like talking to you. But yeah, that was the other thing I forgot to mention is that spiritual friendship is actually one of the found. You know, one of the really key things in our order that I both was attracted to and am really finding is so important to my practice is this idea that. That we. That we’re here to improve our own lives, but also to improve the lives of others, and that those are the people in our communities so we don’t just come and sit and then leave. Right? And you know, maybe that means. Sometimes asking a question and somebody doesn’t want to hear, and maybe that means having to answer a question you didn’t want to have asked of you. You know, so there’s a lot, a lot less of like a teacher student relationship there. That certainly exists, but there’s a lot of students teaching each other. As a focus. And that, to me, is something very, very special that I didn’t expect necessarily to find in a. Buddhist Sangha. So the tree right now does have a lot of opportunities for a treat, it is considered a really important part of our lives as Buddhists in Tree Ratna to go on retreat. None of them are required, but it’s recommended for most people to go at least once or twice a year, and some of them are very short. We have weekend retreats, we have two week retreats, we have three month retreats. There are people who go on retreat for even longer. Solo retreats are usually more common among the order members or more experienced practitioners. For people who are training for ordination and I am who we are, we have special retreats that are kind of about helping us develop our lives more into a dharma centered life, more into a holding, the three jewels, the Dharma, the Buddha and the Sangha as the focus of our lives and those hopefully we get to go on yearly or more often.
On the subject of taking the practice off the cushion. one of the places that I see that I’ve recently seen the practice of testing the most, and it’s something that I thought I might have another 1020 years to do. Maybe this is something I need to do before I become ordained. Kind of thing was learning to stop being a workaholic. When you work in high tech, you’re used to working a lot of hours. And I thought that by switching to a 40 hour a week job, literally you can’t work more than that, that I would stop being a workaholic and I wasn’t. I was thinking about work all the time and stressing about it all the time. And the thing that changed, actually, that caused me to work harder at this part of my life is that that pain specialist told me that they are pretty sure that my central nervous system is just really kicked up and they actually put a monitor on me. And to see how much meditation was helping my autonomic nervous system, because that’s how they help you with your central nervous system. And I said, Well, what about the fact that sometimes they take calls while I’m getting ready? Sometimes I’m working in the lift on my way to work? You know, the fact I think about my work all the time, like, how does that? How does that equal out to 40 minutes of meditation a day, like I’m glad that the biofeedback shows that my autonomic nervous system is going down, but what about the rest of the time? And they said, Well, yes, that’s a problem. And, you know, so I started trying to be less reactive and. I had one really bad week where I didn’t work at all, and suddenly it took hold, and for me, that’s a huge change. So it’s not that I don’t like my job anymore. I love it. But you don’t think about it all the time. It’s. I’m able to leave a lot of it more in the office, and the thing that was really, I guess, unsurprising but surprising to me about this was that when I started being more relaxed about what we do, I started noticing how nervous my team was in an excited way. But you know, we deal with a lot of problems, everyday problems to solve, and there will always be more of them. And that’s what I loved. It’s kind of like a dopamine rush. And what I noticed is that whether it’s my personality or whether it’s just what they came in with, they were attacking every problem like it needed all of our energy. And I’m like, Wait, hold on. Some of these things are more important than others. Some of them we don’t have to worry about right now. You don’t need to fix this before you leave today. And that has really changed who I am as a manager because I’ve started to notice more by noticing that negative tendency in me. I started being able to help people maybe a little bit prioritize their lives and other people have noticed, especially the people in my. My closer darn, my friends have noticed that I’m holding myself more lightly. The other thing that’s another benefit of the practice for me has been starting to engage with people. When I moved to Boston, I developed this. What I call a commuter attitude, you know, you don’t make eye contact because you don’t want people to distract you. You don’t want to invite attention, right? And the problem is that when you do that, you stop seeing people, you know, you’re busy and you’re thinking about going to work . But there is someone who’s standing there and they actually do need money. They actually do need your help and you don’t even look them in the eye. And I started to feel really bad about that aspect of. My life, because it’s not compassionate. It’s not the, you know, it doesn’t matter how much time I spend on the cushion trying to wish people well if I’m not looking anybody in the eye. And so one of my dharma teachers gave me the suggestion of just trying to carry around small bits of cash all the time so that if there’s someone in need , I can be generous and if I can’t, to just at least smile at them and wish them well. And that has really started changing my experience with people in the world. And it can be frustrating because you know, you’re tired and you’re busy. But you know, I take my headphones off when I go through the checkout lane. I tried to make eye contact with people on the subway, and I think just noticing other people is really a type of compassion that we’re losing as we shelter ourselves more and more with listening to podcasts and being busy in our lives. So that’s been, you know, it seems like such a small thing just making eye contact with people. But it’s been a real change in how I see the world. The other I would say, one of the biggest benefits of the practice is right now gearing up for this election. In the last election, I actually worked for a company that did software for the Democratic Party, and I was very wrapped up. And I think pretty much everybody in the US, for the most part, was wrapped up in the election and. I wouldn’t say that I’m any less wrapped up in the issues, but I’ve stopped seeing people who think other things as enemies and I’ve started to recognize that we all have. False views, and there are reasons why we have those and feeling a lot more open to talking to people about what our views are and to see , you know, maybe some of mine are wrong. And so that doesn’t make me any less worried about how the election’s going to turn out. But. Being less convinced of how right I am means that it’s less about me winning. If that makes sense.
I was actually very resistant. Just like I was to meditating, to asking what we call asking for ordination. And the reason was that I felt that I needed to be really ready and really sure before I made that step. And I knew someone else who was training for ordination. And he said to me, Look, the things that you want right now in your practice, more support, more contact with order members, more retreats and more training. Those are the things that you get as part of training for ordination. So there is no reason to hesitate because that’s the journey you already want to go on and whether you become ordained at the end or not. It kind of doesn’t matter. And that’s something that when I finally started to really take that to heart, it also kind of loosened things in that I was able to hold more lightly this idea that instead of having to be afraid of becoming this order member, it was like, Oh, wait, I can start with that first step of saying, Please, you know, help me delve deeper into this practice that’s been so beneficial. I think when you’re somebody who is very busy, I am always very busy with my work and have health issues. It’s easy to especially if you stop being able to go to Sangha to kind of lose focus. It’s not that you lose your practice, it’s that you stop challenging yourself as much as you could. And that’s what I think for me is really useful about these, about the retreats that I’ve been going on is that they really challenge me and challenge my views in a way that I wasn’t doing on my own. And most recently, they’ve been challenging my concept of self-compassion. So I would always hear people say, be gentle with yourself. And to me, it became kind of like a. Like, this is a Buddhist greeting, like everybody’s just going to say be gentle with yourself. And and last year I went on a retreat and I suddenly realized after several days that people actually meant it, that they noticed that I wasn’t being gentle with myself, that I wasn’t giving myself compassion. And that was a really hard thing to hear because I wanted something to work on. But being nicer to myself was not what I was looking for. I wanted more discipline or something. And the idea that being gentle with yourself is a part of that discipline was mind blowing. But I needed to have five days of people telling me that constantly before it sunk in. And I don’t think it would have sunk in in a place that wasn’t a retreat setting because of that. So that’s so far what I’m getting out of the process is really. You know, there’s a lot of views that get challenged and. And they challenge you more because you’ve asked for help bringing the drama further into your life. And so they, you know, they’re here to help you. And in regular life, you don’t encounter that very much.
As somebody who actually started doing mindfulness as a tool, right, as a tool to relax my body in this more recently as a tool to calm down my nervous system and as kind of a geek about technology, I, for example, I have the muse sensing headband. Some of you guys might not know about that, but it’s a headband that you wear and actually read your brain signals and it tells you whether you’re focused or not by making the sound of these birds out there. And there are a lot of different tools out there for learning, mindfulness and some of them. I think there’s a lot of benefit to everybody developing some mindfulness, but. I feel like. So mindfulness can be very useful, and it can be a tool to make us healthier or less stressed. But without. Ethics, along with it, I think it doesn’t go very far because mindfulness in and of itself is often taught as being very aware of the present moment. OK. And we all see the present moment through our own views. What it doesn’t reach into as much is how our view is affecting the way that that we view things. So what are the things that we are holding dear? What are these stories we’ve told ourselves over and over again? You know, you might, for example, notice that you’re getting nervous around someone you’re standing next to, but you might not delve into why do I feel nervous next to this person? Is it because of some amount of racism I never noticed? Is it because of some sex purposes and I never noticed? Is it some kind of other bias? Or am I just having a weird day? I feel like that there is. That divorcing mindfulness from the ethical precepts makes it difficult for them for the benefits to penetrate as deeply as they do when you have a dharma practice . And you know, I think among the Dharma practitioners, I know it doesn’t really matter which lineage they’re part of. There’s there’s a commonality in the goals. There’s a commonality in. And recognizing that part of getting out of this suffering, which is I think most of us come to the practice really at the end of day, we don’t want to suffer anymore is oddly these ethical slips, right? It’s really working with things like write speech and, you know, all of the other right action and right livelihood and, you know, avoiding intoxication and then avoiding all these things. It sounds like a bunch of rules. But at the end of the day, they are a framework for how can you suffer less? And I think that that’s the problem is that people come to mindfulness. The more, you know, the separate concept of mindfulness, so to speak, because they’re suffering. That’s really why they want it right or because they see their employees suffering or because they see their children suffering. But with just just paying attention to the present moment, you don’t have a structure that helps you break out of that view prison that you’ve put yourself through, and maybe your mindfulness course does teach you to try to penetrate through those. But I think without the support of a community that practices together without a support of people who are more experienced, you’re not going to do as much work on pushing through those views and getting to a point where in fact, you do suffer less.
Tree right now has a lot of. Well, it has a lot of different meditation practices for me. I’ll just admit that I spend a lot of time off the cushion, so I sometimes am in a good zone and I meditate daily. Oftentimes in the lift on my way to work, it’s a good time to carve out 25 minutes. But sometimes more so when I come back from retreat, I meditate a lot more, like an hour a day. And I think the thing that’s been interesting for me because I’ve been meditating for ten years now is that the types of meditation that I do have started to mix into each other. So it used to be there was mindfulness of breathing, and there’s the metabolic and or other of the Brahma, the heart practices. And then there are things like sky like mind and there’s the body scan. And now for me, all of my meditations start with a body focused self-compassion center. And that’s something I guess I never thought about. I always thought you had to do things right. And so these are the instructions, and you have to follow them to the leather. And as I started allowing myself to be more creative and got encouraged to be more creative, I found I’ve connected more deeply with practices like mindfulness of breathing. Turns out, works much better when you’re very in tune with your body first and being compassionate towards yourself. So they’re sort of starting to not merge into one practice, but there’s kind of a familiarity and a starting ground that’s very secure for me in meditation. I certainly meditate, but are also usually with other people. I find that that meditating as a group is very helpful for me. So one practice that’s actually transformed for me in the last two years is the one that I think most people begin with, which is mindfulness of breathing. So and the reason it has is that my connection to the breath has changed. I started doing what’s called voice movement therapy. And when you start working with the voice, you have to get comfortable with your breath and you have to be very aware of it in a way that I wasn’t before. And the work that some of the work that we do for my physical health also involves a lot of work with the breath and keeping the body very loose the upper body, the face. And so now for me, I guess what seems kind of crazy is I never thought of mindfulness, of breathing, breathing as a body practiced . I thought of it as just a concentration practice, right? But recognizing that it’s actually about the body for me has been very transformative, and my relationship to the breath has really helped me with my chronic tension problems. I don’t have nearly as many problems with my muscles as I used to because of this combination of things all flowing together, I think. So I love the metabolism. And for me, it’s a big it’s always been a bedrock. But the practice that for me has been the most one of the most illuminating practices, let’s say, is Skylake. Mind is just opening myself up to experiencing whatever happens. And I think the reason it’s been so powerful is that. I have a very strong inner narrative, and it’s a very verbal one, right? And when you can engage with Skylake, mind, you start seeing. And experiencing how fragmented your thoughts actually are when you’re not working to connect them, and that helps me a lot in real life to let go of things that seem really important sometimes because without that experience of seeing how oh, I I, I had this song in my head and that song reminded me of this. And then this led to this thought, you know, you think of of your thoughts and these mind trains as real. And really, they’re just your brain trying to connect a bunch of different things going on in your experience. So I really like to play with that and notice that and Skylake mind. And somehow the lack of structure in some ways is a more supportive structure for me than when I’m trying to do something like mindfulness of breathing, where I’m really trying to focus on the experience of breathing. I don’t notice as much. All of the things that are going around in my head. So the metaphor of Anna is part of four practices that are called the Brahma virus, and they are about cultivating in ourselves compassion, kindness, equanimity and sympathetic joy. So the idea of the first of these is kindness, which is the metaphor of Anna. And the idea behind them is that this is actually something you have to learn to do. You have to learn to both be kind to yourself, to be kind to other people and to start bringing that into your life off the cushion , which I think when you live in the city, you get a lot of opportunities to, especially on the subway or in traffic. The way the practice works is that there’s a set of different targets that you try to feel or to have this experience with. So in our tradition, you start with yourself. So first, you try to bring a sense of kindness to the way you view yourself for x number of minutes. Then you choose a dear friend, someone you care a lot for. Then you choose someone who we call the neutral person who is someone you don’t actually know. Well, someone you see all the time, but you’ve never gotten to know so you don’t actually have an opinion on them. And then you choose the a difficult person, someone that you’re having difficulty with. And then eventually you try to bring all those people to mind and you extend it out to the whole world. The thing that I think is interesting about the practice is that for most people in the West, the first stage is the hardest. The self-compassion, the self kindness piece is the hardest, which was a big surprise to the Dalai Lama when he found out that people struggle so much with that here. And that’s why I think it’s such an important practice is that you know how who teaches you to be kind to yourself, really, when you’re growing up, who teaches you to do that and as you grow up? That doesn’t feel like any lessons you learned in that way. They get kind of. Ambition and trying to provide for yourself and your family gets in the way and you don’t have that anymore, so that practice is a really it’s a really foundational one for us. And for me, it’s the one. It’s actually the first Buddhist meditation I ever did. So I love it. OK, Skylake mine is a much is a very free practice. The idea behind it is that you just try to imagine that your thoughts are like clouds floating by or anything in your experience. So you try to keep your mind open and spacious and you notice the things that come in and out, but you try not to follow them, which is the hard part, of course. And I think it’s that spatial spaciousness that can be intimidating. Or maybe sometimes. People interpret that as a good opportunity to come up with grocery lists or think about anything else you want to think about. But really the the idea is to notice how different sounds change, what you think about how you follow these trains and how you find your way back to this open, spacious. Feeling. I think those are great definitions, helpful. I mean, I kind of, you know, I’m definitely familiar with it. Yeah, I think the terminology sometimes though, people often think differently. Well, and we also call this guy like mine just sitting. Yeah, it’s just that. I’ve heard it called Sky like mine more outside the order, whereas in the order, we call it just sitting. Yeah, that’s a good thing. When you start talking, I was like, Yeah, of course. I’m sure you know, that’s how scientists. Yeah, because look, it’s this it’s this little bit of a flip different flavor. Well, and it’s interesting, like for the Mahayana tradition you start instead of with yourself, you start with your benefactor in the in the metabolome, in a practice which I think is interesting and might be easier for people, honestly. But I’m telling you, like every time we have people learn this, every time there are people who talk about how hard it is to to reflect that compassion and just, it’s crazy. It makes me crazy sad. Yeah. So it’s I feel like that’s one I know it’s really.
An interest in meditation led me to the dharma. The people whose online meditation classes I took were dharma teachers and members of the Triratna order.
I chose to become Buddhist for many reasons. First and foremost, Buddhist teachings make a lot of sense. Sometimes it seems like they are so obvious that it’s strange that living the teachings is so challenging. Buddhism requires me to have faith in my ability to transform myself. Sometimes it is hard, but it is something I can devote myself to.
Buddhism encourages us to try the teachings for ourselves without blind belief. That is important to me. The teachings of ethics are paired with teachings of compassion. This kind of compassion was something I sorely needed. And so in time it was clear to me that I was Buddhist.
The Buddhist path only exists in our daily lives. It is something we can work on no matter what else we are doing. And so, it has gradually started to permeate my life. Some big changes for me since starting to practice 10 years ago are: becoming more compassionate to myself, becoming less of a workaholic, being less interested in distraction, and carrying myself more lightly in my endeavors. I’ve learned to work less hard, to strive with less grasping, and that has helped in both my work as a software developer and a song writer.
In my relationships, both those that are personal, and in other places, I make more of an effort to rejoice in the merits of the people I encounter. I’m learning how to argue without a goal of being right – but instead a goal of trying to understand the other person’s point of view. This has changed my life at work dramatically.
I looked into other lineages after encountering Triratna, but in the end it turned out that the sangha I was looking for was the one I started with. Triratna is an order that is less based in Eastern Culture, which is important to me because I don’t want to be appropriative. It’s an order with an emphasis on: scholarship into the Pali Canon and relying on the fundamentals that underlie most lineages; a foundation in going to refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha; engaging with the arts as a form of inspiration; living in the world (it is a lay order).
I also have been very inspired by the way that the order makes decisions that are helping it grow and change. It has historically been a place where gay and lesbian people were welcomed even in times where that was rare. The order is now working on how to make sure that non-binary and transgender people are also welcomed and feel included. This is among many of the challenges the order faces as it grows and changes with the times.
I wish I was more of a regular meditator. But for me, my practice is fundamentally in the moment. It is taking opportunities to be kind when I’d otherwise ignore people – my Lyft driver, the security guard at work, cashiers, etc. It is noticing when I get caught up and learning to release my grasping.
Retreats are very important for me to keep being inspired, and I go to them when I can, but that is hard in a world with so little vacation time.
More than anything else, the thing that keeps my practice alive is my sangha community. I have a weekly sangha that I only manage to go to when I am well, but I also have a smaller subgroup that meets at my house twice a month for dharma study. I have a few friends in the order and in the training for ordination program that I stay in touch with. And I luckily have three great local order members that I talk to fairly regularly.
There have been times when I’ve been much more focused on dharma study and meditation, but I had no sangha. My practice didn’t get very far. The people that I study and practice with challenge me to look at my views, to understand my grasping, and to notice when I reject things out of fear. They also help me realize how much I’ve changed and help me by rejoicing in my merits.
The second is that the teachers I met were people I really connected to because we had a lot in common. My local sangha leader worked in my field for a long time, and has similar personality quirks to mine. It really helped me to see that people like myself were not only benefitting from practice, but were able to commit themselves to it so wholly.
I work as a software developer who writes code that tests code. I manage a team of others who work on the same project.
The thing about being a problem solver for a living is that you can become very focused on systematic approaches to solving problems. You can collect all the data you can, and still be stymied. You try to explore every avenue. But what can really bring breakthroughs is spaciousness, because it lets you become creative. To become creative you have to accept that you don’t have everything figured out. I think often about the story of the monkey who can’t get his fist out of the jar because he is holding on to a treat. I’ve learned to lighten my grip and that often can give me the creativity to solve problems.
I’ve also become more patient, and that sounds like a small thing but it’s really made a difference for my creative work. I get ideas as a song writer, but I can’t always make them work when I want to write them. Sometimes I just have to let go of the idea that a given song will work. Sometimes I need to just wait and give my creative mind a chance to breathe. Weeks can go by and nothing happens, and then suddenly there the song is. In my old life I wouldn’t have had the patience to let these things materialize.
The first lineage that I felt really driven to join was Shambala. I was very attracted to the program and the orderliness of it. It seemed very well constructed. But I realized after I first started to take a look at it, that my ego was drawn to the sense of accomplishment each step might give me. While I knew that wasn’t the reason the program was designed that way, I realized it wasn’t quite right for me.
I think there were two pieces to my personality and background that made Triratna really attractive. The first is that Triratna’s teachings are focused on those of us from the West. That is really helpful when you are trying to learn things counter to Western culture, like self compassion, and how to stop grasping. This focus made me feel like the teachings were more approachable.
© 2021 Jack Huynh | Orange Photography
Annual update on progress of project.