Searching for Buddha in West Campus.

Never before have I admitted to such a public audience that my iPhone played a crucial role in my latest spritual endeavor. 

But it’s true. It did. Although I’m a little embarrassed to admit it.  I even hesitate to tell my friends about the magical podcast I accidentally discovered on my iPhone one day, sometime last January, while going through a brief spell of personal discontent.  “So, you looked for answers on your iPhone?” I imagine them saying.  “Yes,” I would reply back, and immediately I would know that Apple has won.  This is disconcerting.

Anyway, this podcast is called “Zencast,” and if you’re anything like me you think that sounds a little silly. Like when the name “Jesus” is used in inappropriately cute ways, such as Jesus TV, Jesus Radio, and a dubiously-named edible called “Jesus Snacks” (all for real examples).

But I had listened to some meditation podcasts just the week before, and they weren’t bad, so why not give it a shot? Zen people liked to meditate. Maybe I would like to meditate. Maybe I would become zen!

So I downloaded a couple. And then, I downloaded several. For a few weeks this Winter, I became Apple’s version of a Rush Limbaugh dittohead, listening to my new hip Eastern religion on headphones, in the car, in bed, making breakfast, at work – that is, pretending to work, while actually tuned into a calm-voiced Buddhist teacher explaining things like “attachments” and “loving kindness.”  I even got a little zealous about it, telling random people (and just a few friends) about Zencast and how earth-shaking it was. “You guys, did you know there’s a difference between REALITY and THE THOUGHT WORLD?” These are the kinds of things you say when you’ve been listening to too much Zencast. I knew it was too much, because people would meet my question with a look on their face somewhere between, “huh, that’s interesting!” and ” … the fuck?

This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten all excited about a religion. In high school, there passed a short but very dedicated time when I loved The Lord. I was saved! “Are you saved?” This was a normal, non-ironic thing I would say to people. Then, I entered college, and my attitude toward Christianity did a complete 180. During my first year, the president of our school was trying to get the non-discrimination clause in our university constitution officially changed to include “sexuality” in its list of things with which it valiantly did not discriminate: race, creed, class, etc.

But this did not sit well with another president. The president of the school’s Christian fraternity.

In fact, this audacious 19-year-old was so pissed, he called public town meetings on our teensy, tiny campus to discuss it. “This is a Methodist school,” he argued. “And the Bible’s position on homosexuality is clear.” 

First of all, calling our college a Methodist school was similar to calling it a banana. Second, that single incident pretty much ended my already-fading honeymoon with Christianity.  I wasn’t a GLBT activist.  I didn’t even have any gay friends yet. But all of a sudden, the whole Christian enterprise seemed really hateful to me.

Coincidentally, George Bush happened to be running for his first presidential term that same year.  And I think that for the next eight years, Christianity – to a certain segment of the population – was just portrayed in a really bad, loony tunes kind of light.  As hateful as that Christian fraternity president was during that fateful town meeting, I am ashamed to admit how cruel and over-generalizing I was, about all Christians, during most of that time period. “Jesus” became my favorite punchline for anything (and it kind of still is).  “What would Jesus drink?” I would ask, standing before an array of shots at some party. “Who would Jesus do?” I would ask my roomate, giggling through episodes of The Bachelorette.

But now, I feel like I am just getting to the point where I can respect religion again. Including Christianity.

When I first started dating Ross six years ago, he lent me a copy of The Tao of Pooh, and I thought it was one of the most delightful things I had ever read. Later, he hauled out his old, beat-up copy of Hua Hu Ching: The Unknown Teachings of Lau Tzu, and it still occupies a very revered place in our bathroom. In fact, I read it this morning.

The ego is a monkey catapulting through the jungle:
Totally fascinated by the realm of the senses,
    it swings from one desire to the next, 
    one conflict to the next,
    one self-centered idea to the next.
If you threaten it, it actually fears for its life.

Let this monkey go.
Let the senses go.
Let desires go.
Let conflicts go.
Let ideas go.
Let the fiction of life and death go.
Just remain in the center, watching.

And then you forget you are there.

Isn’t that amazing? The whole concept of forgetting “you” is just fascinating to me (and, as an only child, a near impossible feat). As my trusty little Zencasts have taught me, Buddhism is all about letting go of ideas, of thinking – which seems exotically anti-Western, as well as nuts. Not think? Isn’t that what makes us human? Species-dominating? Awesome?

Then, when I began to listen to the thoughts that actually do play inside of my head, I began to see the wisdom of this advice. For example, here is a typical conversation I’ll have with myself:

“Well Tolly, what did you think of Real Housewives of New York last night?”

“I think they’re all bitches!”

Like that. Sometimes I think deeper things, but mostly it’s petty stuff. I can afford to give it up.

This is a really, really long-winded way of saying that I went to the Austin Zen Center for the first time a few weekends ago, for an orientation and a little “practice” meditation. It just so happens to be less than a mile from my house, on the very edge of West Campus. I am going to a “Dharma Talk” again on Saturday morning. What will they talk about? What is Dharma? I have no idea.

But when I’m there, I’m going to try and “quiet the mind, open the heart” as Buddhist teachers say.

Do you have a weird relationship with religion, too? A Buddha/Jesus/Hare Krishna/ story?  Tell me your spiritual neuroses and/or discoveries! I’ve often wondered if more people, especially hip Austinites who might feel weird talking about it, grapple with this like I do.

(photo sources here and here).