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How It Helps Me

Six non-Buddhists — KIM STANLEY ROBINSON, DONNA M. JOHNSON, PICO IYER, CHRISTIAN MCEWEN, SETH GREENLAND, and JESSICA LITTLE on how Buddhism has benefited their lives.

Chop Wood, Carry Water


I don’t think of myself as a Buddhist or as a particularly religious person, but I like Buddhism because it helps me think about my day-to-day life. I like it also that I feel the Buddha and most practicing Buddhists would be fine with this use I make of Buddhism. Sometimes I call my attitude a Californian or hippie or New Age Buddhism, but what I mean is Buddhism feels like mine.

I use it most in structuring my feelings as I go about daily life. I think this may be expressed best by the Zen saying “Chop wood, carry water,” which suggests to me that the repetitive activities of ordinary existence can be performed as devotional acts that express the sense that the universe is miraculous and sacred, that life is precious and we are lucky to be here. We move in a flow of time, and nothing endures. Everything is always changing, but while we are here, if we are not in too much pain, there is beauty\ everywhere to be appreciated and lived. This is a feeling to be shared and spread to others, if possible, but first we have to feel it in ourselves.

This feeling comes to me most when I am gardening, walking, running, washing dishes, writing, hiking in the mountains, cleaning the house, and talking with family or friends. Since we can’t hold on to anything past its moment, including our own lives, this sense of performing a devotional as we go through time is the best way to feel a love of life. I call this realization a Zen perception and am thankful that my readings in Buddhism suggested it to me in my youth. It’s been a comfort and a joy ever since, and I trust it will continue so.

A science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. His new novel, Shaman, was released in September.

Illustration(s) by Eric Hansen.

The Curtain Lifted


There came a time in childhood, a brief time, when I was forced to spend hours at a stretch outdoors alone. It seems a harsh sentence for a kid of four or five. Yet when I recall the felt experience of those days, it’s with a kind of awe at what transpired.

I passed the time playing a solitary version of hopscotch, scratching panoramas into the dirt, and constructing rambling internal narratives to which I routinely added new chapters. Each day I came to a point where the responsibility of the made-up world exhausted me, and my attention turned to the world around me. I became a fierce watcher of rain, clouds, insects, birds, airborne tufts of cottonwood. When I watched something long enough, the curtain that separated me from it sometimes lifted. An odd expansiveness rushed in, and I experienced a sense of connectedness. With my next breath the curtain fell, and I was once more a discrete entity, bound by skin and senses.

These experiences continued, though I never spoke or thought of them. I couldn’t because I didn’t posses the necessary vocabulary. That changed in my teens when I first encountered Buddhist thought. The emphasis on interconnectedness caught my attention, and I wondered about my early experience and what it might mean. Someone gave me a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a book I studied for years. I meditated and extended my reading to other Buddhist thinkers and to Christian theologians influenced by Eastern philosophy.

All of this happened a long time ago, and it is still happening. Over time, Buddhism has helped me construct a spiritual framework deeply rooted in my direct experience, thus encouraging me to trust my own perception. It inspires in me a confidence that hearkens back to childhood — to that radical knowing rooted in the immediacy of the real world and the wild imagination of beginner’s mind.

Donna M. Johnson was the organist for the apocalyptic tent preacher Brother David Terrell. Holy Ghost Girl is her memoir of growing up amid miracles and human frailty.

Doctors of the Mind


I’ve never been eager to be part of any group or to figure out what kind of forces are at play beyond our comprehension. We all have enough to worry about right here, right now, with our loved ones, our bosses, our trials, and our joys.

But part of the practicality, the universality of Buddhism, as I understand it, is that it’s never been a religion. It doesn’t insist on a sense of God (or no God); it doesn’t necessarily concern itself with ideas of nirvana or the hereafter. It simply offers a training of the mind that encourages us to wake up to what is and, as the Buddha did, to see things as they are — not without metaphysical supplements but with open-eyed awareness and compassion.

I’ve never had a Buddhist practice. But I can see how and why this training in realism could be a help and companion to anyone, even if he or she still decides to identify as Jewish or Catholic or nothing at all. (Half the friends I have these days seem to style themselves “Buddhist Catholic” or “Jewish Buddhist.”) To me, the Buddha and many of his later students — the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, for example — are really doctors of the mind, offering diagnoses and prescriptions.

You don’t have to share their fundamental assumptions to accept their diagnoses. They’re simply suggesting one response to the confusion and predicament of life, and whether or not you take to it has nothing to do with ultimate matters.

A Buddhist can be spiritual, religious, or — absolutely — none of the above.

A British-born essayist, Pico Iyer is the author of The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto.

One Ordinary Day


This past June I was teaching on Tanera Mor, a tiny island off the coast of Scotland. One quiet afternoon, I made my way to a small hummocky islet, looking out across two bright-eyed lochans, and settled back against a lichen-covered rock. For more than an hour I did precisely nothing.

Gulls swooped and squabbled overhead. The scent of bog myrtle carried on the breeze. A cuckoo called — once, twice! — across the hill.

I follow an eclectic spiritual path. But ever since I was a child, I’ve practiced what I call “placefulness,” a sense-based meditation drawn from one specific place. There is no question that Buddhist practice has helped me with this. That day on Tanera, I let my eye wander and my ear too, moment after moment unfurling with gentle authority.

Even in that most perfect of places, on that most perfect of days, it wasn’t easy to stay present. So I began to sketch a little poem in honor of the island, eager to pay witness to each passing moment, to register the subtlest and most minuscule of changes. It was mindfulness entwined with placefulness. Looking, listening, listening out. The record of one ordinary day.

Wind blows the grasses, and the grasses tremble

the heather yields and crunches underfoot

tadpoles idle in the peaty shallows

a black sheep tears its fleece against a fence

one gull dabbles the bright surface of the water

another one swoops in from far away

a collared dove calls coo, roo-coo, roo-coo!

a piece of sandstone flakes off in the sun

ripples spread and glitter like a starry net

the lochan shifts from black to radiant blue

I sat for a while with the scrawled piece of paper in my lap. And then I found myself another rock, another watching-post, and began to sit again.

Christian McEwen is the author of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down and coeditor of the anthology The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing.

It’s a Puppy!


One of the most appealing things about Buddhism for me, a non-Buddhist, is the concept of beginner’s mind. A beginner is the opposite of an expert. If you’re an expert, everyone is looking at you. They expect you to know everything, to have gamed out all possibilities, to be godlike. That’s an awful lot of pressure because humans are, well, they’re human. Imperfect. Inexpert. And what expert wants to admit he doesn’t know something? Because if he admits he doesn’t know something, then he’s not an expert. More pressure. It exhausts me just to think about it.

But if you’re a beginner, there is no pressure. There is no expectation that you will know anything. No one judges a beginner. They’re like puppies. You don’t get angry at a puppy when it poops on the kitchen floor. It’s a puppy! A beginner. So cute! Being a beginner significantly decreases anxiety. And in my world — one of ringing cell phones, deadlines, and a dog that can’t stop shaking when it rains — any way to manage anxiety that doesn’t involve a prescription is wonderful.

To do my best work as a writer, to dig the deepest and reach a level of perception that did not exist five minutes earlier, I need to be open, eager, and lacking in preconception. Sound familiar? According to the renowned Buddhist text Wikipedia, this perfectly describes the condition of beginner’s mind. If I believed in tattoos I would get Openness, Eagerness, and Lack of Preconception engraved on my bicep (next to a mermaid) so I could check in with these ideas while at my desk.

And I like vipassana, too, but the editor told me to keep this under three hundred words.

Seth Greenland was a writer/producer on the HBO series Big Love. His novel The Angry Buddhist was released in 2012.

Fifth Graders After Lunch


It’s Tuesday and I have the fifth graders after lunch. It’s a notoriously rowdy class, and after lunch they rarely want to calm down and spend an hour speaking, reading, and writing their second language. But it’s my job to teach these kids English.

I always take five minutes before my classes to breathe. While I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, I am a strong believer in meditation. I don’t meditate as often or as long as I’d like, but I never go without my pre-class “mini-meditation.” If I go into the class calm and anchored, the children feel it, and it helps them calm down after their noisy lunch break. So I turn off the lights, sit at my desk, and breathe.

Five minutes later, the bell rings and the kids come streaming in from outside. They are sweaty and out of breath. One girl is chasing a boy and trying to write on his arm with a blue highlighter. The boy tells her to quit it and races through the classroom, shoving chairs out of his way. Other students drag their feet. They ask questions like, “Can I go to the washroom?” “Did we have homework?” and “Are we doing anything fun today?”

I do exactly what I do every time I teach this class. It is a ritual. I speak slowly and quietly. I ask them to turn to the handout waiting on their desks and read it in silence for five minutes. It might look like regular old instruction: the teacher gives the students work to do, and the students do the work. But it’s really a mini-meditation for the students. Call it “silent reading meditation.” And it works. The students calm down, and we can begin our English class.

Jessica Little is a teacher who lives in Montreal with her partner, Simon, and their seven-year-old son, Zachary.


From the November 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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