An old "B.C." comic strip holds down one corner of the picture window that looks in on the Dharma Bum temple — a whimsical accent tacked onto an otherwise serene and tasteful tableau:
“Whatcha doing today?” one caveman asks another.
“You did that yesterday.”
“I wasn’t finished.”
For Dharma Bum Jeff, who runs the temple’s Sunday-night introductions to Buddhism, it’s an example of Western culture illuminating Eastern wisdom. After the eight souls gathered into the temple’s cozy loft have taken time to settle their minds by sitting and focusing on breathing, Jeff asks, “What did you do to make the mind so still? Nothing. We need to take time to do nothing and just sit. There are causes and conditions to everything that goes on in our day, and you have to slow it down a little bit to recognize what’s in your mind. The stillness...is your own mind’s reaction to what’s happening around you. What we’re working on in meditation is learning to react quietly and peacefully. When you begin to settle the mind, you learn to adapt to whatever condition is around you, and that’s where peace lies.”
As the evening progresses, he cites other examples: in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray escapes the endless repetition of Groundhog Day only after each of his intentions has been purified, and “everything in Buddhism is about intentions.” When I ask about seeking pleasure through drugs, he goes after the root cause of the desire for such pleasure: “More often than not, we use them to escape from our everyday situation. Look at the causes and conditions of your long week. Scene 23 of Fight Club, a very graphic but beautiful movie. Tyler Durden is holding a gun to the back of the head of a guy who works at a convenience store and asking, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ If you want to work at a convenience store, beautiful. If not, find out what you want to do with your life. If you are doing what you want to do, then come Friday, you’re fine. You don’t need to let go” via drugs or alcohol. “Fun stuff. Welcome to Buddhism.”
But let’s back up, back to the beginning: arriving through the heavy door, removing shoes, ascending the crooked stair, and passing through the carved gate into the loft space tucked under the curving roof. Stepping over the threshold with the tiny sign at your feet: “The Zendo is your mind. Please take care of it.” Settling onto the round cushion and taking in the sign on the cranberry-red wall: “I have arrived. I am home.”
Below the sign is a bronze statue of an emaciated man sitting cross-legged with a blanket over his legs. Jeff lights incense and bows before the statue, then sits in front of it and assumes the same posture. “What are you all doing here?” he asks. “That’s probably the most important thing I’ll say all night: ‘Why are you here?’”
“To practice clearing my mind,” comes a reply. “Peaceful, joyous, and free,” comes another. “To sit.”
Jeff rings the bell three times, and we begin by reciting the Heart Sutra, which “is in itself a meditation. Don’t be concerned with understanding it. Just recite it, and eventually, it will...still confuse you.” It’s easy to see why he says this because it’s hard to get your mind around thoughts like “form is precisely emptiness and emptiness precisely form.” Jeff says that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. And here is the Heart Sutra, telling us that “there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering, and no path.” We close with the great mantra of wisdom: “Gate Gate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.” (One possible translation: “Gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond. Enlightenment hail!”)
“When you have a headache, do you forget to take Advil?” asks Jeff. “When you’re hungry, do you forget to eat? We want to bring ourselves to a place where we view meditation that way” — as the remedy for our suffering, the “stress and anxiety and anger and sadness and depression” in our lives.
After the meditation, Jeff gives a short talk. “We talk a lot about the six paramitas here: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom.” Tonight’s focus is on morality; specifically, the Five Precepts. “Roughly translated into English, they are: no lying, no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, and no use of intoxicants, drugs, or alcohol. These precepts are not meant to put a burden on your life. They’re there to help you achieve a state of liberation and end your suffering.”
He delves a little into the particulars of each. No lying includes withholding information. No killing means no killing — bugs included. “Be mindful. Have compassion for the bug. And what right do we have to just kill?” No stealing includes stealing “people’s time, energy, attention. Things that aren’t ours, but the sense of self says, ‘I want.’” As for sex, “We’re not saying, ‘Don’t have sex.’ We’re saying, ‘What are your intentions? Do you understand the causes and conditions that will result from these actions?’” And intoxicants? Intoxicants “cloud the mind. We want to settle the mind.”
What about pleasure? “Is it really pleasure? What is it based in? A sense of self. A sense of physical enjoyment. The Heart Sutra talks about the senses — the things we see and touch and taste bring pleasure. What happens when we don’t have that pleasure?” We seek it. And, says Jeff, “desire or craving is the cause of our suffering.”
What happens when we die?
From Jeff’s talk: “The idea is to be liberated from a state of suffering, into a state of nirvana — or peace, or bliss.... The cessation of suffering is nirvana, extinction.” He also mentions karma and “the cycle of rebirth.”
— Matthew Lickona
The Dharma Bum Temple
Sunday-night introduction to Buddhism, 7 p.m.
541 Second Avenue, Downtown, 858-922-8811;