Yesterday I was thrown into a conversation about my heritage. It’s an interesting conversation, because I spend so much time in classes (both my own and those I assist) discussing the identity of others, and yet I have barely thought about my own or how I identify. I don’t identify with any specific heritage – perhaps because I grew up “a mutt” notwithstanding the strong links to various cultures. I grew up in a town with a large Buddhist community – one of the largest (probably the largest per capita) in the nation. Consequently, I was exposed to the teachings from an early age despite half my family calling the local practitioners “freaky” – they assumed that these people were leftovers from the 70’s age of cults and communal living. There were certainly leftover hippies. People always fear what they don’t understand.
One of my favorite hometown experiences happened when I was very young, though I don’t remember my age. It must have been past the age of ten because I was already performing in the local community band. After a Sunday evening concert one summer, I was sitting on the common eating an ice cream cone, and I met my first Buddhist nun. She had finished a walking meditation and was walking around the center of town softening clay beads in her hand to make a mala. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I know that’s what cemented my relationship to the dharma. I walked away with the mala she had created and kept it until Hurricane Katrina destroyed it in 2005 (ironically, after I returned to New Orleans I found it in the mud where it had settled inside a singing bowl as the water levels dropped).
My relationship with Buddhism has always been love-hate. The teachings are there, but I haven’t always followed them, even when they bubble up from the subconscious to play the angel on my shoulder. I’ve had wavering months of devout practice, and months lost in the land of capitalist-driven hedonism where my inner child considered the world to be its sandbox. All I can do is smile because of course the entire premise behind Buddhist teachings is an espousal of ‘the Middle Way”, commonly known as moderation. I’m a horrible example of this. Now, in the land of academics, the corners of my mouth turn into a smile once more because once again the teachings, this moderation, should be paramount to my existence… and once again it’s not. An example? I work exceedingly hard 6 days a week to the point where I feel like I’ll collapse and on the 7th day, I’ll sleep late and do nothing but watch ridiculous TV and play with my dogs. Wouldn’t my life be better served if for those 6 days, I practiced moderation, so that by the 7th, I won’t feel the need to laze around? Sure it would. Knowing and doing are two different things. If my life becomes an example for anything, it’s that.
The noble 8-fold path should be recodified for academics, and applied to our interactions with research, colleagues, and students: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. I think I’ll post the list on my office wall. Meanwhile… identity – I’m still working on that.