Confessions of a Buddhist Super-Villain

Knowing what matters most, matters most.

I had no real intention to study Buddhism and become a Buddhist when I first went to Sri Lanka in 2002. But, immersed in Buddhist culture, I basically couldn’t help myself. I was on a volunteer mission to start up English language learning centers working out of the Buddhist temples surrounding my village. The following summer I resided at a monastery and taught English in their “international college” for 3-8 year olds and the young un-ordained monks, and I played most afternoons with a passel of little orphans. I also served as press agent for the monastery, as they were piloting a project to ordain retired men.

I knew nothing about Buddhism before I went there. I learned dhamma (Dharma) and meditation the way the monks did, all the way back to the time of the Buddha—at the feet of my teachers.

I learned “primitive” Buddhism in a “primitive” setting. I learned Theravada Buddhism, based on the Pali canon, the Buddha’s actual words. There was no mystery to this, no mention of spirituality, or karma, or rebirth. There was only the smell of incense and the Four Noble Truths. Theravada is the mother church of Buddhism. This form of Buddhism is practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

The message goes something like this: You want to live in this lousy world? Civilized people have rules to live by. Peace of mind requires mental and emotional strength, developed through meditation. The cessation of your suffering comes through mental and emotional strength, that is, through the cessation of bitching and griping. This leads not to happiness, but rather sanity.

A common praise of Buddhism is how over the years it has adapted to different cultures. See, I think that’s where the problem lies.

My Buddhist beliefs are traditional and very conservative, even if I do identify as a secular practitioner. Consequently, whenever I encounter false doctrine, religion and cultism (there’s a lot of that going around) on Facebook, I can be a merciless troll. That is why Buddhist writer, Brent Oliver, labeled me a “Buddhist Super-villain” on Facebook last week.

Mahayana Buddhism developed, supposedly, over a rift about who can and cannot achieve nibbana (Nirvana), which is about as stupid a reason to part ways as the reason why there are Shiite and Sunni Muslims: an argument over the successor of Muhammad. There are 1500 Mahayana sects. Buddhism traveled to China, where its message was bent to the will of the royalty and aristocracy. Zen emerged—which was a good thing—and also Pure Land Buddhism, the sect most Buddhists ascribe to. It’s basically Buddhism with a heaven in it, which is something quite alien to true believers.

Chinese Buddhists brought their version of Buddhism to Japan and Korea, who did their own revising of (i.e. “adapting”) the Buddha’s message even further. In Japan there was Buddhist support for Imperialism, and sects that base their beliefs on “Sutras,” supposedly dictated by the Buddha at the end of his life, saying that the primitive dhamma doesn’t count anymore, but if you repeat the chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” enough you can find your true love, job promotions, and wealth.

Then the Tibetans adopted Buddhism and melded it with local religious beliefs until even modern Vajrayana pray to hideous demigods and revere Tibetan priests that have been dead for 700 years. Rebirth is huge in Tibetan beliefs. Two of secular Buddhism’s great writers, Stephen Batchelor and Stephen Schettini, were Tibetan monks for years, but after after they took vacations to Sri Lanka and hung out with Theravada monks, they never went back to Dharmasala.

Take the notion of lineage, popular in Mahayana Buddhism. The notion of lineage implies a cult of personality, as there are generally “originators” of this school or that school. Devotees can be harshly intolerant of followers who stray from the “Master’s” message. Tibetan monks can be notorious womanizers, drunks, and abusers. In the West some of the more famous ones used their authoritative power to basically stick it to any pretty white women they could coerce.

Yes, I am a troll, a Buddhist super-villain, and occasionally the nastiest writer under the Buddho-dome. I am a very nice man, except when I’m not. Why should I be tolerant of other people’s beliefs? I’m a Buddhist super-villain! When I sense bullshit, I am going to call it out. When I see meditation used for anything other than mental development, I am going to call it out. When I see Buddhism equated to pacifism, I’m going to call it out. When I am invited to a $1000 a plate dinner of cold quiche, throat singing, and parading around in funny hats, I am going to call you out for the money-grubbers that you are.

No one should be asked to cough up thousands of dollars for courses leading to a certificate to teach somebody’s bullshit. No one should have to pay five hundred dollars for a weekend retreat. Buddhism is not about money, it’s supposed to be about dhana. I guaran-fucking-tee you that the more expensive the offering, the more bullshit it is. American Buddhists flounder around not knowing what to believe, when the point is to abandon beliefs altogether. If it’s not the Mother Church, it’s either Buddhism lite or Buddhism lies.

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For a $2000 round-trip plane ticket you can reside for free in any temple in Theravada-land, and you get to eat the monks’ leftovers (you’re on your own for dinner, as Theravada monks don’t eat after the noonday meal) for months if you want to. Use whatever skills you have, even if it’s only conversational English, to help the temple out. Try pulling that off in Dharmasala. Puja is at 7 p.m.

There is a lot of garbage Buddhism out there, and if you give them money, it only encourages them.

If you really want peace of mind, truth and courage, you’re not going to find it in a book or learn it from some yuppie or geshe who can’t speak English. Being Buddhist in a Buddhist culture, you’ll see smiles on the faces of people so poor most Americans cannot imagine. You’ll feel welcome like you’ve never felt welcome before. I was in Sri Lanka for a day and a half, and burst into tears. I felt like I was around my own people for the first time in my life.

Most people assume that a couple of months in a Buddhist temple would be dreary and boring. Nothing is further from the truth. In the heat of the afternoon, that’s the time to sit around on verandas and discuss dhamma. There’s plenty of fun in a big temple, especially if you like lively conversation. There are lots of kids around, all tripping over each other to do you and the monks favors, the most common of which is to make tea. At sundown there is a beautiful little worship service with an oil lamp parade and chanting. You quit wearing shoes. You give your watch to some kid who admires it. Your life changes, and what you bring back from such an experience is worth the time and the effort, for you and for your loved ones.

Buddhism doesn’t come to you. You have to go to Buddhism.

Many people could do it if they really wanted to allow Buddhism to change their lives. But only a handful of people ever do. You can even get your head shaved and run around in orange robes if you want, but a simple sarong and a polo shirt does nicely.

There you will absorb the dhamma through your skin, and your lungs, and the soles of your feet. There is hardly any crime there. You can’t walk from one end of the village to the other without being asked for tea by the poorest people; you might end up sitting on a dirt floor, or the ground, or a concrete block, but never say no to the tea. They asked you in because they’re friendly and hospitable, but it also means 20 minutes of precious conversation with a native English speaker. They like it when you correct them.

Also, you can go to the beach any time you want.

(To check out volunteer opportunities in Sri Lanka, go to altruist.org)

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The Genius Behind Kentucky Bourbon

Booker Noe is a legend in Kentucky.

He died in 2004, and was the fifth in a line of father-to-son master distillers at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. He was a larger-than-life character who stood six-four, a master storyteller, confidant of governors and heads of state, and a legendary host. In addition to manufacturing the most popular bourbon in the world, he kept the industry alive during the “white liquor days” of the Sixties and the Seventies, when vodka reigned supreme, by coming up with the idea of small-batch, limited-edition bourbons.

It seems lately that here, in the heart of bourbon country, a new small-batch distillery opens every month. 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is manufactured within sixty miles of my house. Bourbon is enormous business nowadays, and it owes a lot to Booker Noe.

Once on The Moth Radio Hour his son Freddie told the story of his relationship with his demanding dad; he never felt he could measure up to his standards. Booker smoked his own country hams, which traveled with him wherever he went and would give them away to chefs in restaurants all over the world as examples of how country ham was supposed to taste. He was a big University of Kentucky alumnus, and threw legendary Kentucky Derby and Christmas parties. He wasn’t Col. Harlan Sanders, but Booker Noe was every bit as influential as an ambassador representing the state of Kentucky as the “fried” chicken guy. You can probably get a shot of Jim Beam bourbon in any bar in the world, thanks to Booker Noe.

So what does this have to do with Buddhism?

Freddy tells that late in life, his dad developed diabetes, with which he lived and coped for a number of years. Then his doctors told him that he’d developed a spot of gangrene on one of his toes, which would require that they amputate his leg. Booker asked about the consequences of not going through with the procedure, and they told him that he would die.

Booker refused to have the surgery, telling his son, with whom he was reconciled, that “Quality of life is more important than quantity of life.” He spent the rest of his short time entertaining visitors and saying goodbye to his hundreds of friends.

The story of Booker Noe’s death impressed me. He, like I in different ways, led a rich, full, adventurous life, and though he probably could have added to his time on earth by not drinking so much of his whiskey and eating his famous hams, his world would have been empty indeed without them. That was not Booker Noe’s style.

The paradoxes of life deny us a fixed identity. If we can learn to accept that, we can learn to “roll with it,” to deal with the bad and to enjoy whatever pleasant things life throws our way.

It’s called equanimity.

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Those Aren’t Nazis

I’ve been a big fan of Darryl Davis since I first heard his story on This American Life maybe 15 years ago. He’s the African-American musician who in thirty years has made friends with hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members. His approach is something along the lines of “You say you hate black people. Look me in the eye and tell me you hate me.” Many Ku Kluxers give it up after meeting and talking with Davis. He has dozens of Klan robes and hoods to prove it.

By making friends.

I’ve heard that he plays piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. He was playing in a nightclub somewhere in the deep South, much to the delight of a couple of middle-aged white patrons, who caught his show again the next night, and they approached Davis and told them how much they enjoyed his piano playing. They became friends. And they were Klan guys, one of them a Grand Poobah or something. The friendship blossomed to the point that his two new fans quit the Klan.

That was Davis’ foot in the door. He met more Klansmen and made friends with them. He attended Klan rallies and made even more friends.

Why he’s not a legend by now, I don’t know. But he’s done more to erase white supremacy than an army of Progressive liberals and anti-fas.

By making friends.

Nothing of any value is to be found in noisy, dangerous clashes between white supremacists and the forces of Antifa, except to give us an opportunity to make jokes at the expense of extremists. They’re laughable. If you want to see a real riot, check out TV footage of what was going on outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Nazis? I knew real Nazis when I was a kid living in Munich in 1962. Those aren’t Nazis, they’re frat boys who can’t get laid.

I’m sorry, but I see the whole thing as laughable. It’s horrifying to see people getting run over and killed (I had a friend who got a broken leg at Charlottsville), but any Marine will tell you that if you go to places where dangerous, unfriendly people congregate, you can get hurt.

nazis and commies

I have at least three friend who have had to change their names on Facebook because they were being harassed by either antifas or white supremacists. They’re activists. But not the weirdoh-wacko cowards who inhabit the fringes of politics, who are best described as hate-full. Hateful people suffer from delusions.

Anyone who’s been through a Vipassana meditation course can tell you how hard it is to pry those delusions away from their consciousness. It’s rough, and it takes years of practice to see clearly. Granted, the kind of people attracted to such soul-searching (I don’t believe in souls) consider themselves unbiased and free of prejudice. But they’re not. I’m not, and if I’m not, then you’re not, either.

It takes guts and balls and courage to do what Darryl Davis does. The results of these friendships is secondary to the friendships themselves. If you don’t browbeat people, you can influence them.

I get an e-mail or Facebook message every week from someone who said they read my book Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness and tells me that it had an impact on their lives. I always feel astonished when I get one, even though that was the purpose of writing the book in the first place. I never know what to do when I get one, but I always write back with something along the lines of “You’re too kind,” and direct them to my Facebook book page, and The Tattooed Buddha.

I had a Darryl moment, the Thursday before Charlottsville, at the rifle range, which is usually dead on Thursday afternoons. On this particular Thursday I found myself all alone on the firing line. I’m well-known at Knob Creek, so the range officer said that he was going to go in the shop where the air conditioning was, and I could do whatever I wanted.

Late in life many gunslingers learn to appreciate pistol-caliber carbines. Most of us can’t see good enough to shoot at targets 250 yards away anymore; neither do we have the legs to set targets at that distance every half hour without wheezing on the way back. Pistol caliber carbines can be shot at targets 25 or 50 yards away and not look like a shmuck like the clowns with AR15s shooting at the same distances.

So, ennyhoo, I broke from tradition and actually shot at a plastic pop bottle instead of the boring round targets. 40 caliber bullets don’t go very far, but they leave enormous holes in things. Three shooters showed up as I was packing my gear up to leave, and it was obvious that this was their first time at Knob Creek, and didn’t know shit about semi-automatic handguns. They looked like country folk. Immediately one of them pointed his gun with the barrel parallel to the firing line, a HUGE no-no and a rookie mistake.

When they put out their targets, I was dismayed to see life-sized photo posters of a young black man with a smile on his face, crouching and pointing a gun. He was a good-looking black man; with his round head and closely cropped hair, he looked like Teddy Bridgewater. Everybody, and I mean everybody in the Louisville area knows who Teddy Bridgewater is; formerly at the University of Louisville, presently starting quarterback with the Minnesota Vikings.

I debated whether or not to talk to them—the rifle range is full of characters—and then decided that if they didn’t learn how to properly handle their firearms, somebody was either going get shot, or shoot themselves.

“Hi, fellers, new guns?” One of them was. “This your first time to Knob Creek? There’s usually a range officer out here, and he’d get mad at you if you point your gun parallel to the firing line. That’s so nobody gets shot.” I threw in a few other points of range etiquette, and told them that if they choose to shoot semi-autos, to ALWAYS” I barked like a Marine, “ALWAYS make sure the chamber’s empty when you unload it.” Please make sure that the chamber’s empty. I fear for the lives of inexperienced civilians with semi-autos. Hell, you can buy one for $130.

Thanks for the info, they said. I asked them how they could see where the bullets go shooting at a mostly black target. I gave them about fifteen six-inch self-adhesive “splatter” targets, very colorful. They were delighted.

“You can put em over that guy’s face,” I said, pointing to the targets with my chin. “You know, black soldiers and cops and college students come to shoot out here all the time. If they’re dressed up like gang thugs, those are the college students. And veterans. Lots of veterans. Just a thought. What do you have against Teddy Bridgewater anyway? Must be Cats fans.”

Then I rolled up the left sleeve of my tee shirt to show them my giant eagle, globe and anchor tattoo on my shoulder.

“I love you,” I said. They probably thought I was a Christian or something. I slung my pistol-caliber carbine over my shoulder and left.

I’ve never hated in my life. I’m too friggin jolly.

So maybe some antifa will accuse me of being a white supremacist (fooled ja! I’m not even white) or some Neo-nazis will harass me for being a Jew and making fun of them (silly buggers). If I could get both going at the same time, that’s fodder to a writer. I could have a lot of fun with that. Pardon me if you interpret my derision for hate.

Then when the traffic gets too bad, I’ll change my name to something Buddhist. Right now my favorite is Dosabahula, which in Pali means grumpy.

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Another Nasty, Divisive Article About Buddhism

There is a lot of division, and even derision, in the Buddhist world. And I plan on contributing divisive perspectives and sarcasm as much as I can. See, I’m asshole enough to argue that there is only One True Buddhism, and that’s the one based on the Buddha’s actual words.

It seems to me that the Pali Canon, which is purported to be the words of the Buddha himself, is by far the clearest and most understandable of all the ancient Buddhist writings. I base this on the fact that I can understand the Pali Canon, and I can’t understand the “other stuff,” you know, the Mahayana Sutras. I never claimed to be the best reader in the world, but give me a break. I have a masters degree. I know bullshit when I read it.

There was a 300 year gap between the Buddha’s sermons and their recording, and I have heard that as an excuse for looking askance at the contents of the Pali Canon. But it is not that much of a stretch to believe that disciplined monks couldn’t pass this wisdom down pretty much verbatim for three centuries, since that was what their whole lives were about. Many cultures had oral traditions that survived for thousands of years before being written down.

But whereas the Pali Canon is unsullied by the geopolitics of the eras in which other “holy” Buddhist writings were accomplished, the Pali Canon, for millennia, has been sneered at and looked down upon by the Chinese and Japanese and Tibetans and Westerners who have come up with their own “Dharmas” suitable for supporting the elites against the common masses. Buddhism didn’t come full circle and return to its simple, egalitarian roots until the Chan/Zen movement, which I have been told was started in rebellion to the doctrines of the more bull-shitty incarnations of Mahayana Buddhism. There is even a Buddhism with an eternal heaven called “Pure Land” Buddhism. If you’re into religion, go be a Christian or a Muslim. There is no heaven in Buddhism.

Seriously. There is more than one story about Westerners who yearned to follow the path and studied Buddhism at the Tibetan temples of Dharmasala, India for years, took vacations to sit with the Theravada monks of Sri Lanka, and never returned to Dalai Lama land. Tibetans worship deities. Fuck deities.

Think of Theravada Buddhism as the “mother church,” stern, insisting on the renunciation of sense-pleasures. Reformed in the 20th Century, there are plenty of demigods, heavens and hells in the Theravada belief system – none of it taken seriously. Some Mahayana Buddhists lost those parts of Dhamma they didn’t like (like “don’t think with your dick”) and replaced them with Hindu “tantra,” creating a “Buddhism” of self-indulgence, especially sexually. Theravada, the “Keepers of the Pali Canon,” known as “The Way of the Elders,” is primarily practiced in Sri Lanka and most of Southeast Asia/Indochina (Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand). Vietnam has its own Zen that is very rooted in the principles of the Pali Canon.

charlie meditating

I’ve been writing about Buddhism for fifteen years, and as such, must eat, live with, sleep with, and constantly study Buddhism. And it has been my intention (read my book!) to take stuff that is kind of hard to understand at first, and make it easy to understand. That’s why I write for lunks. See, if you can read it and understand it, then you don’t need geshes and other guys in funny hats to explain it to you. The wise man on the mountaintop might be sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck, drinking a beer.

The Pali Canon is the gospel of truth. It’s a big book (The Dhammapada), like, Bible big. (The Tipitaka is enormous, and the Dhammapada is only a volume in it.) But unlike either the Bible or the enormous collection of “Sutras” purported to be authentic Buddhist wisdom (and to be fair, most of it is wisdom), you can read the Dhammapada because it’s easy to understand. Not most of that other stuff!

Alas, there is not much Theravada Buddhism available in the U.S., and what there is, tends to be ethnocentric. It depends on community size. Most common would be Thai temples and monasteries, less so Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Sri Lankan. And certainly don’t write off the Vietnamese. The vast majority of Temple congregants are Asian, but they draw earnest Americans as well who are not adverse to swapping skills, or money, of course, for wisdom. In Tibetan temples they start hitting you up for money as soon as you walk through the door.

But it’s also not as rare as you’d think. The proprietors of Thai restaurants are good people to ask if you want to link up with a Theravadan monk. And a relationship with a monk or two can make all the difference in the world if it is your intention to benefit from the wisdom of the Buddha.

But Buddhism doesn’t come to you, there are no hellfire and brimstone monks standing on street corners admonishing strangers not to kill or harm any sentient beings. You have to go to Buddhism. Seek and ye shall find. If what you might encounter seems fishy to you, it probably is fishy, and if it seems snobby to you, it probably is snobby. Not Buddhist by definition.

If you want it bad enough you might want to take two or three months off and volunteer to teach English at a temple in Theravada country, in exchange for wisdom. They’ll feed you and give you a bunk to sleep in, but malaria prevention might be on your own. Don’t expect travel expenses. For that matter, don’t expect air conditioning, refrigeration, flush toilets or toilet paper.

Miracles (i.e., paradigm shifts) happen in the jungle. If you cannot renounce fucking your wife for 90 days, and do something of benefit for awhile, then you are not meant to follow the Way of the Elders. There is a Great White Sangha waiting for you over with the Tibetans, out in the burbs.

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The Most Haunted Place in the World

Recently I toured one of the most haunted places in the world, the old Waverly Hills Tuberculosis Sanitarium in southwest Louisville. It’s been featured on many “ghost hunt” TV pseudo-documentaries on cable TV, in fact, you can watch one on a giant screen while you’re queuing up for your tour and finishing your purchases at the gift shop.

The place has fascinating architecture and terrazzo and marble floors still in perfect condition. Otherwise, it’s an empty shell with no windows or many doors. The place is enormous – 135,000 square feet. They’ve been talking for years about remodeling it into a hotel.

But it seems to be doing pretty well as a mecca for ghost hunters. Apparitions, it is said, are frequent there. Like the nurse who hanged herself outside room 502, the little child with the ball, and the dark-haired woman in the white nightgown. For the most part, it’s pretty mild stuff. My wife took picture after picture of black rooms, hoping to grab a picture of a ghost. There is a photo of me and a woman, and behind her peeks out a ghostly face, but it turned out to be a reflection of the back of my head. One young woman took a photo and got excited when she saw what appears to be a ghostly face peeking out from behind her butt, until we figured out that it was only her hand.

“That’s the last time I drink margaritas before doing something like this,” she said forlornly. Her ‘I felt so stupid’ story is the best one to come out of the evening.

waverly hills

The sanitarium was opened in 1928 and operated until 1960 and the development of streptomycin. It struggled on for a few more years as a nursing home, then began to decay. They say that at its peak of operation, someone died there every hour, twenty-four hours a day, seven days week. The treatment for TB at the time was rest, nutrition, and fresh air.

I sensed the presence of nothing supernatural there, but there were a few wacky folks in our group who picked up on some things. One woman said she felt a ghost dog brush against her leg.

“Oh, yes,” said the tour guide, “I’ve seen that dog.”

They do run an awesome haunted house on the weekends before Halloween.

I thought for a moment: what if I had experienced something supernatural there? What if I’d seen a ghost, or felt a deathly chill run through my body? What if I’d gotten the willies? Since I am so seriously anti-delusion and anti-metaphysics, not to mention anti-fear, what if I did encounter the supernatural?

Would that seriously shred my view that God is a delusion and that there is nothing after death, and if you can cozy up to your own certain mortality, then you are free of fear itself? You experience the void, (emptiness) and there is great comfort in the void. I don’t have to shiver like a mouse and profess belief in the mysteries of God’s ways on the chance I could go to heaven and abide for eternity. As a matter of fact, I can think of nothing more horrifying than heaven. I don’t want to live forever. At my age, all things considered, I’m on borrowed time as it is.

But I am very comfortable with the idea of ceasing to exist. Even if traditional Buddhist notions of rebirth are true, death is still the end of you. There is no soul to transmigrate anywhere. When it’s over, it’s over.

There is a word for people like that: enlightened. You’re not part of the disease, the mental disease of cowardice that compels people to believe in deities and life after death, and spooks, and goblins, and the Republican Party. You’re part of the cure. Nibbana (Nirvana) is the snuffing out of your flame. The Buddha tells us that life is grim at the end, but you don’t have to suffer, if you’ve got a strong mind.

George Carlin was right when he said that religion – the belief in God – is the cause of all the evil in the world. Just look around you. Anybody who professes belief in something religious see themselves as superior to people who don’t believe what they do. That’s the way it works. That’s why they exist. The promise of paradise is religion’s cynical way of supporting the political status quo. People are timid, and will believe anything. They’re easy to sway to conventional wisdom. Just look at all the religiously-tainted crap going on in the world today, from evangelical Christianity’s influence in conservative American politics to the absurd turmoil between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, ostensibly about a disagreement about what happened 1500 years ago – and heads have been rolling ever since.

So, nobody tours Waverly Hills in the winter because it’s too damn cold. I wonder what it would take to negotiate something out so that I could spend the night alone there? Wrapped up in my old Holubar Arctic sleeping bag, sipping bean soup and coffee out of thermos bottles, and no light source, of course. I never built fires back in my backpacking days, so that I could emerge from the dome of light and sound and appreciate the night for what it was, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to take a hissing Coleman lantern for this gig. Meditate all night and try to leave myself as open to new experience as I possibly can. Maybe they’ll find me frozen to death with a hideous look of terror on my face.

Then, along about 3:35 a.m., I can see a whitish blob way down the end of the hallway that sort of floats slowly toward me, and soon I see the apparition of a small woman with dark hair walking toward me. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, in fact, I feel an initial disappointment at seeing her: so much more now to learn, at such an advanced age. She sits cross-legged right in front of me, puts her elbows on her knees, and her chin in her hands, looking into my eyes. And I look into hers, squinting because she’s kind of hard to see. She tells me without words that there is more to heaven and earth than I can possibly fathom. And then she dissipates like steam.

Horrified by living a foolish life of disbelief and self-delusion, I hurl myself to death off the balustrade where so many TB patients went for fresh air.

The Dalai Lama said that if any empirical evidence came along to refute something that Buddhism holds true, that Buddhism would have to change. I said that I would undertake such a spooky night with a mind that’s open – bring it on ghosts! Convince me that the supernatural exists, because if you’re real, then the possibility that God exists is real. And then if God is real, then my opinion of humankind as a quivering mass of cowardice would be wrong, and I am in denial.

But until I see a ghost, or the hand of God in the world, I’m gonna kinda freaking doubt it.

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Tips for Buddhist Writers

Tra-la, it’s May, the lusty month of May, the time when yearly royalty checks, merrily they pay…

There is exactly only one reason for anyone to be a writer, and it’s because you can’t not write. You can’t make a living at it either. My book Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Buddhism is one of the most popular books about Buddhism on the market, and sales remain strong. But the money I make off of it doesn’t even cover my yearly weed bill.

Getting into writing for publication was like a loose Vegas slot machine for me. My first published article, the first one I submitted, appeared in 1975. It was about motorcycles. The same magazine bought my second article. It was about autism. I hit the jackpot early, and couldn’t walk away.

I became a part-time, and occasionally full-time, journeyman magazine writer. I’ve written about a lot of different stuff, most under the aegis of professional organizations wanting to look their best for the public. I was big in housing trade journals for a number of years, that’s where I made the most money. I was one of the first in the trades to write about radon abatement, and got nominated for a journalism award for it. There are no dull subjects, only dull writers. One of my favorite assignments in the late Eighties was an article describing the use of lateral lines to replace septic tanks in sandy barrier island environments.

One of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done was to teach “Writing for Publication” for eight years in the adult and continuing education program of my city’s school system. That’s when I really got into mentoring writers. Five of my students published books, two of them World War II memoirs. I’m always mentoring writers.

Then came 9-11 and my resolve to do something to address terrorist violence. Somehow my plans to go to Pakistan turned into six months in Sri Lanka during their civil war. That is where I studied Buddhism, and since 2002, that is all I write about. Fifteen years in this particular trench, three books written, and the last one got published. Now I’m the talk of the town.

Here are a few tips I’d like to lay on you.

  • Write outside your comfort zone. Most writers I run into are way too introspective when they ought to be out interviewing people, and traveling, and trying new things. Don’t turn your nose up writing helpful hints pieces for the weekly newspaper. It all counts.

  • If you write in the first person you’re not supposed to be writing about yourself.

  • Edit ruthlessly. It’s not called “killing your babies” for nothing. If it’s not pertinent, lose it, especially unnecessary personal references. Write in the active voice.

  • Expect to be edited ruthlessly. It may be your piece, but it’s their masthead, and they can do whatever they want to your work without your permission, though editing is usually a “give and take” process. There are incompetent editors out there and some who are on power trips. Don’t work for them. I once told an editor that if she was a man, I’d drag her out into the middle of the street and horse-whip her. Another editor was so capricious with her ordered changes that I yanked the piece just before it was to be published.

  • A really good editor, especially if you’re working on a book-length project, is so valuable you end up in a surprisingly intimate relationship. Your baby is now your-and-your-editor’s baby, and it takes months to get your “perfect” book to press. Expect lots more changes to your manuscript than you expect.

  • Don’t submit a manuscript full of errors and grammatical mistakes. You can always pay a freelance writer or editor to line-edit your book before you send it to a publisher. Really, with spell-check and grammar-check software built into your word processor, there is no excuse.

  • Do not be obsequious in your cover letters. Tell the publisher why your work can stand out in a sea of other books or articles that are about the same thing you’re writing about.

  • E-publish. Buddhism for Dudes was a Kindle book for three years before I submitted it anywhere. It would still be a Kindle book if my friends had not encouraged me to find a publisher for it. The book I’m marketing now is on Kindle, and as I submit it around for publication, I can tell publishers that a thousand people have already read it, and take a look at those reviews!

  • No one is interested in your personal tribulations and traumas. Writing isn’t therapeutic. Writing is hard work. Pay your dues.

  • It’s important to “write about what you know,” so if you’re not constantly researching and studying, you’re not going to get published. I’m working with a guy right now who researched the book he’s writing for 25 years. And it’s going to be one helluva read when he gets done with it.

  • You don’t need an agent if you’re not writing fiction. I’ve had three agents. None of them ever did me a bit of good.

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Two things that never get old: seeing your byline, and signing your books. But it is an enormously satisfying thing to hear from someone who says they actually benefited from something you wrote. Soldiers have e-mailed me from Iraq and Afghanistan saying how my book “kept them centered” during their deployments, and one Scandinavian woman said it jarred her out of her depression and “gave me my happiness back.”

That’s strong shit. Usually when I tell people about the Scandinavian woman, I choke up and start to cry.

Readers expect to become informed, and possibly even enlightened, by the things they read. Better yet, they like to be entertained. That’s the secret to my success: I’m writing about stuff people have been writing about since the Third Century BC, but my stuff gets read because I’m funny. Humor is a tool. Use it. Any teacher will tell you how effective it is to get a point across using humor.

You don’t have to beat your readers over the head with humor – you’re not Erma Bombeck. But turns-of-phrases, interesting word choices, surprising metaphors, and short stories used as illustrative examples can get readers to return to your work. Subliminally, it’s “I learned something from your piece, and it also made me smile.”

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Tips for Buddhist Writers II: Humor Me

 You know that serious meditation and scrupulous study of the Buddha’s wisdom leads the fortunate few to the edge of a precipice, beyond which there is nothing at all. It’s a void. Experiencing the emptiness that promises nibbana after you fall off the cliff means, among other things, that you embrace the ultimate truth: there is no soul, or God, or life after death. This knowledge frees you from the bonds of conventional wisdom, and it is oddly comforting. The ultimate happiness is the sound of one hand clapping. That’s when you realize that most people are boobs.

For one thing, effective humor is ambush humor. It is a grave mistake for writers to think that readers remember the first part of a paragraph, when what makes the most impression is what comes last. People walk away from the paragraph above chuckling about the delusions most people suffer from.

“Boob” is a very funny word. It means one of two things: a harmless stupid person, or a woman’s breast. Women use “boobs” a lot, since they come in pairs, but when women use the singular “boob” it can refer either to a mosquito bite or her husband. (See how that works?)

Now I am going to re-structure the sentence so that “boob” isn’t a punchline. By moving the one sentence, I am able to leave the reader with a completely different impression.

You know that serious meditation and scrupulous study of the Buddha’s wisdom leads the fortunate few to the edge of a precipice, beyond which there is nothing at all. It’s a void. Experiencing the emptiness that promises nibbana after you fall off the cliff means, among other things, that you embrace the ultimate truth: there is no soul, or God, or life after death. That’s when you realize that most people are boobs. This knowledge frees you from the bonds of conventional wisdom, and it is oddly comforting. The ultimate happiness is the sound of one hand clapping.

Get it? You could start the paragraph with a joke if you wanted, but if you end it with the words there is no soul, or God, or life after death, that is what the reader will take away.

You can avoid clichés by turning them on their heads. If he eats like a horse, but gulps his food down and is finished eating before anyone else, it means that in reality, he eats like a Labrador retriever. And since most people don’t know Labrador retrievers for the gluttons that they are, you’ve made a tired cliché funny, and you’ve also educated the public about watching your plate where there are Labrador retrievers around.

Schnauzers are funnier dogs, but they don’t eat like Labs do.

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Illustration for Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Buddhism by Ivette Salom

Metaphors are the stuff of life. Labels are meaningless, but comparing things to other things is how we understand stuff. Other than word choice itself, metaphors are also ways to brand your style with some flair and pzazz. Consider:

The meeting went fine until Jeremy announced that he was leaving the firm. Borrr-ing.

The meeting went fine until Jeremy dropped a bombshell by announcing that he was leaving the firm. Cliched.

The meeting went fine until Jeremy threw a grenade into the room by announcing that he was leaving the firm. Not cliched and more descriptive about the effect Jeremy’s announcement had on the people in the meeting. Hand grenades are funny. The only two sports where “almost” counts are horseshoes and hand grenades.

Writing in the active voice provides additional opportunity to use more vivid language. Avoid qualifiers. It may not be as grammatically correct as Mrs. Grundy expected in 11th grade English, but readers appreciate it. (Not readers will appreciate it, although that might be more accurate.)

Maggie walked to the corner store to buy some apples.

What’s the backstory? Did she lumber down to the corner store because she is overweight, or dance down the street, providing a kind of Holly Golightly feel, or did she limp down the street? Dashed down the street. Stumbled down the street. Skipped down the street. Dragged her tired ass down the street. Roller skated down the street. In each instance you’ve livened your writing up considerably by using a more active active voice, and added detail that tells you a lot more about Maggie than her mere destination and purpose. It’s funnier if you replace the apples with gefeltefish.

Maggie is having an affair with Kurt. Or, Maggie is shagging Kurt. Little turns of phrases, playing with single words, it’s that kind of thing that makes a writer’s work entertaining. For humor, it’s absolutely essential.

He flew through the air like a bird. Or, he flew through the air like a rock shot out of a slingshot. Once during a training exercise in Key West I accidentally got launched 30 feet into the air and landed 150 feet out into the Caribbean, and had to be rescued by Coast Guardsmen who were laughing their asses off. I did not feel like a bird. I didn’t choose to fly that day. I was definitely a rock.

My mom was a well-known laugher. Even her 1942 High School Yearbook talked about how she loved to laugh, and be around people who made her laugh, which was not hard to do.

But mom had a friend who was one of the most unpleasant, humorless woman anyone could meet. In a community context, my family was retired military in a community full of retired military people, and were friends with a number of retired guys who’d married German girls after World War II, until all the men died off, leaving my dad holding the bag for at least a half-dozen former frauleins. Among them was Hildeborg, the sourpuss no one could stand to be around except for Mom. But Hildeborg and my mother shared a passion for riverboat gambling and made several trips a year together to hit the casinos. No one understood why they were so close.

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When my mother died in 2010, I wrote and read her eulogy. In homage to her sense of humor, I started with this story:

I don’t know how many of you know this, but in 1943 my mother Dorothy DeBolzo, who was only 18, parachuted behind enemy lines with the OSS in German-controlled Italy. Before she was extracted, she had stolen the secret plans the Wehrmacht developed for their retreat. She also seduced an SS Nazi Colonel, and then cut his throat while he was sleeping.

A hush fell over the room. I continued.

And that’s just the kind of story that would crack my mother up.

Mom did serve in the WACS during World War II, but I doubt that she killed anybody. She was a clerk-typist. But I didn’t hear the rest of the story until several years later at the VFW, where I meet my dad and his Teutonic harem once a month for community breakfast. On one occasion, Hildeborg wasn’t present, as she had flown back to Germany to visit her family. In her absence, all the other German ladies took the opportunity to gossip about her.

That’s when I heard the rest of the story. I don’t know that any of the German women made the connection, but it seems that Mom and Hildeborg had more in common than slot machines.

“She vass in the German army, you know,” one of the women told me. She and Mom were veterans, once mortal enemies, then the best of friends.

The gossiper continued. “She vass a Nazi!

Mel Brooks once said that his goal in life was to get people to laugh at Adolph Hitler. Brooks was in combat engineers during the latter part of the war. You know what combat engineers do? They find and defuse land mines.

I saw the humor in my mom’s relationship with Hildeborg, and when the punchline “She vass a Nazi” came up, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Mel Brooks would have chuckled, too.

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