Scritto in inglese per una pubblicazione di Shambhala Books, attualmente presente nel sito di 35/35 di Shambhala Publications. Se qualcuno è interessata, potrei tradurla in italiano.
From character hats to engaging with the Buddha
When I was sixteen and at school a game played everyone played concerned becoming a somebody. Pupils moved around trying their best to develop an identity to wear that would match the world’s expectations of them. They put on character hats, personality coats and mimicked the behaviours they saw on TV and in peers. I didn’t quite get the rules though, even after a disastrous tour through all of the different social groups at my secondary-school. I couldn’t find my identity, so I started looking through mum’s books to see if there was anything to help me figure out who I was to be.
I came across ‘The Life of Milerapa,’ the fictional account by Lobzang Jivaka. It was so much fun to read and from it I understood that magic, super powers and unusual, beer drinking teachers must all be an intimate part of this new discovery of mine, Buddhism, and that maybe it held some answers about becoming someone as well as how to develop mystical powers, which I thought very cool at the time. Curious, I picked up the only other Buddhist book on the shelf, ‘The Middle Way’ by Tulku Thondup and dipped into this voluminous brick excited about how to become just like Milerapa.
The first page scared me stiff. A paragraph describing the truth of emptiness, and explicitly the doctrine of no-self, sent me into a panic. I was scared rotten of being a nobody and having no self couldn’t sleep for several nights after. It sounds over-the-top now, and kind of silly, but you can probably guess rightly that the book went straight back on the shelf and I tried to forget all about this scary, ‘nobody’ Buddhism.
Still confused I drifted off into other concerns leaving the question of self and identity on the shelf with Mr Thondup and Milerapa. After secondary-school I began experimenting with drugs and the burgeoning, underground, dance movement in Bristol at the time. Tricky, Massive Attack, Portishead and others were all emerging and set for stardom, and I dived right into the buzz of it all by exploring Bristol’s night-life. Ecstasy entered the identity hole leading to ecstatic states of unity and oneness, boundaryless love and a desire to merge as the music surrounded me like a blanket. I stopped feeling lost and empty for brief moments and life seemed less confusing.
After three years of this though, and a bad trip, I came down to earth with a heavy, heavy bang and after nursing a broken heart at the loss of that ecstatic world, I found myself slightly desperate, but also curious about the spaces I’d reached with ecstasy. Slowly I began to think again of the notions of self and Buddhism still sitting on mum’s shelf.
I was no longer scared of the Buddhist Gruffalo, so searched around in the local paper and found a centre in nearby Bath. The people there were both ordained and lay practitioners and when I arrived all of them were very smiley and welcoming and that first evening there was a course on Shantideva’s ‘The Way of the Bodhisattva.’ I sat down at the back of the room and listened and somehow his words resonated. I liked what I was hearing and the feel of this group. I felt welcome and decided to stay.
Three months later I was packing up and moving into a new Buddhist centre in the heart of Devon, in south-west England. I would stay there for a year and meet my first wife, and have many crazy adventures that are too many to recount here. After that year what I understood was that I had finally become a somebody. I had an identity. I was now a Buddhist and everything would be just fine. Buddhism would save me.
The story could end here, with a happy ending, a clear resolution, and the protagonist living happily ever after in a cosy dharma world. Something else happened instead though. This new identity soon brought a new inner-conflict. I began to realise that Milerapa’s story had fooled me. I started to get an itch, which took the form of an aversion to what I now think of as ‘Super-Buddhism’ and the ‘Superlative Buddhist.’ This is a being so enamoured with Buddhist ideals that he or she dons a beautiful shiny Buddhist identity by putting on a wonderful Buddhist character hat, a fantastic Buddhist personality coat and mimicking the behaviour he or she sees in their Buddhist peers and guru.
So, I felt uncomfortable again, but I was no longer a teenager and as an adult instead of seeking to fill a hole I began to question. My itch however was not understood and my questioning frowned upon. This eventually led me to leave the Buddhist centre. I tried out other groups, but the feeling was so often the same, and the questions I asked were invariably referred to traditional eastern texts and vague, pre-packaged Buddhist answers.
I would meditate alone for the next ten years and thankfully the Buddhist landscape changed during my absence. I consider the misunderstanding I experienced back then as a collective immaturity, a teething period of Buddhism in Britain. The school I began in had an unquestioning and dogmatic obedience to traditional practices that I found conflicted with my own curiosity and need to question why. It was enormously positive in its open availability and it led me to the Buddhist path as a viable means for exploring life’s big questions whilst helping me deal with some of the confusion and doubt I had had in bucket loads. It did however in my view act as a form of escapism in which a Buddhist identity was manufactured and in which to question was somehow mistaken and only ever met with a lovely smile.
After years in the wilderness my reengagement with Buddhism came through the web, at first through forums and websites that many will be familiar with; Buddhist Geeks, Dharma Overground, Tricycle, Unfettered Mind. It happened all of a sudden and it was like rediscovering an old flame. It was both succulent intellectually and relieving emotionally to see the changes that had been taking place. Finally the big questions were out in the open and being explored by like-minded individuals with the same concerns that were always there. What does it mean to be a Buddhist in our time? How do we relate to the world without becoming lost in a Buddhist identity? How do we address historical, cultural issues in a post-modern world that lacks care for the spiritual or sacred? How can you pass through idealisation to get to the core of the Buddha’s teachings?
I now work with a western Vajrayana teacher 1:1 and mainly through Skype video, and I am more than happy with how it’s going. I love where Buddhism is at. I love the way the internet has made it possible to explore so many incredibly important themes and issues with so many different people and access the cutting edge of the exploration of both Buddhists ideas and ideas in Buddhism. I love the fact that a new generation of teachers and practitioners are questioning and finding answers, even if temporary, to living dharma in the 21st century, and I love being part of this collective discourse and evolving change as a western Buddhist.