My Path to Buddhism

Luang Por Sumedho and sangha members at Amaravati
11 May 2024

Early exposure: Om towels, Richard Hittleman, and public radio

My parents practiced yoga and meditation when I was young. They had yellow towels with “Om” symbols hand embroidered on them that they used as yoga mats. What can I say – they were hippies. And I’m so grateful.

One day I discovered Richard Hittleman’s Guide to Yoga Meditation among my parents’ books. A relic of the 60s, it was totally “groovy”, weird and wonderful. I loved his idea of the “universal mind” which I now think of as Dhamma. I devoured it and started trying to practice as best I could. I still have this book in my personal library, repaired multiple times with packing tape.

In my teens, I discovered the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, and Siddhartha. I became peripherally aware of Tibetan Buddhism and one evening I heard a talk on our local community radio station from a guy with an unusual accent about compassion and the importance of developing a rich interior life. Later I learned it was the 14th Dalai Lama. I was transfixed but struggled to really understand the message. I also knew a few people in who were into the Free Tibet movement but seemed to me more interested in wearing patchouli and fondling mala beads [Full disclosure: I now have some mala beads in my sock drawer. πŸ˜† ]

I thought, “Oh well, too bad I wasn’t born in Tibet.”

I was definitely curious but it felt a bit like cultural appropriation and somehow just out of reach: nice to look at but too esoteric and too difficult to apply to my own life growing up in St. Louis MO, USA.

I thought “Oh well, too bad I wasn’t born in Tibet”. Today I realise how lazy and small-minded that line of thinking was. Ah, youth…

Harmonic Resonance & Halloween

I didn’t think much more about Buddhism as a thing that I could do until May of 2019 when I went on an amazing retreat hosted by musician David Hykes at his home in rural France. Between our group finding the resonant frequencies in our voices, he mentioned to the group about how much Buddhism had impacted his life. At the end of the trip he told me “Buddhism is a wonderful path”.

This piqued my interest again.

In autumn of that year I was at a Halloween party talking about volunteer work. A fellow party-goer mentioned that he sometimes traveled out to Hertfordshire to cook rice for the monks at Amaravati, a Therevada Buddhist monastery not far from London.

β€œWhat’s this? A Buddhist monastery in England?…Impossible!” 🀦

In a moment of blazing ignorance, I was dumbfounded. “What’s this? A Buddhist monastery in England? Just outside London? Impossible!” 🀦 Clearly I hadn’t learned much since highschool.

I was on on my own that weekend while the rest of my family was out of town and I thought, why not? I saw that they offered weekend meditation classes so off I went to try it for myself.

A short bike, then train, then taxi ride later, I was at the gates.

A small group of people were shuffling into a small side-room as the main temple was being used for another event. I removed my shoes and went inside where a young monk led us through 20 minutes of guided meditation, 20 minutes of guided meditation, 20 more minutes of seated meditation, some Q&A, and a lovely little Dhamma talk on the power of “good enough”, inspired by a group of post-graduate students visiting that day from Goodenough College. On my way out, I picked up a book by Ajahn Sumedho.

I couldn’t believe how lucid and clear the language was and how easily I could imagine applying the teachings to my own life. I was shocked to discover he was born “Robert Jackman” in Seattle WA – my hometown! Unperturbed by being born in the West, he served in the Korean War as a medic in the navy, then studied Far Eastern studies at Berkley, became a Red Cross social worker, then joined the Peace Corps. One day on a break he was sitting at a cafe where he saw a Buddhist monk and thought “that looks interesting” eventually ordaining under Ajahn Chah in 1966.

Inspired by what I read, I picked up as many books and listening to as many dhamma talks from Amaravati as I could.

The timing was perfect as the world was about to shut down and everyone would soon have a lot of time to cultivate their interior worlds and develop a more balanced integrative relationship to reality. Meditation became part of my daily routine and I’ve tried to keep it pretty consistently up ever since.

Since then, I’ve been practicing and visiting the Monastery as often as possible for Dhamma talks and other events.

Just thinking about the five precepts can open a wonderful path of enquiry

It’s a wonderfully deep practice but you can start as simply as you like and still get tremendous benefits. For example, just thinking about the five precepts can open a wonderful path of enquiry and practice.

The five precepts

Do your best to refrain from:

  1. killing
  2. lying
  3. stealing
  4. committing sexual misconduct
  5. intoxicating yourself

Far from “commandments” backed by threats, the precepts are simply “guidelines” underpinned by a gentle invitation to investigate the deepest truest nature of reality. It aligns nicely with my work on OKRs as a way to understand reality. Try them out for yourself and see what happens!

Want more? Check out my personal notes on things I’ve found useful.

Tags:  Buddhism