It is hard to get comfortable, sitting on the cushion on the laminate fake-hardwood floor. There is room for a 100 in this large office space, but tonight there are only 15, of us in attendance. “Tuck your legs under your pelvis, imagine there is a string running through your spine extending to the ceiling,” the instructor suggests, sitting on an elevated platform in front of us. Now properly seated, our goal is to stop: Stop fidgeting, stop adjusting your butt, stop sniffling, stop scratching, stop looking at the clock and stop worrying that you are a couple classes away from being in a cult. These were some of the thoughts that crossed my mind sitting in Shambhala Buddhist Centre in Ottawa.
What brought us to the Buddhist centre that night was a little different for each of us. A war veteran wanted help coming to terms with battle images that haunted his mind. Another woman sought to quell the stress that comes with being a receptionist. A young couple was there to “get in touch with their spiritual sides,” as they told us.
To the uninformed – or just plain uninterested – Buddhism is tantamount to worshiping a statue of an overweight man. At least, this was my early interpretation.
Perhaps the confusion about Buddhism stems from the fact that Buddhists do not worship a God or creator; in fact, Buddhists are rather indifferent to this concept. The starting point in Buddhism is that we are already filled with delusions. The purpose of meditation is to purify these thoughts. With enough practice, one can be rid of delusions completely, by reaching a state called enlightenment. According to Buddhism, this is the only way to know the true nature of reality. Buddhists also believe that there is no satisfaction in materialism, in complete contrast to our consumer culture.
Were there any enlightened beings hiding in Ottawa? I set out to find devout practitioners. I wanted to know if they were in fact happier than the rest of us.
Unlike other places of worship, Buddhist centres do not stand out in cities. Many are tucked away in office buildings, as is the Buddhist Centre where I met Lynn.
On the way up the stairs, I catch the second of the three signs asking you to “please take off your shoes.” Lynn is about the age when women decide to cut their hair short. In one fell swoop, Lynn brought me up to speed to where she was at in her life: “Get a job, get married, get a house. I was missing the whole point.” For Lynn and her now ex-husband, getting a graffiti-removers company off the ground consumed their lives. “He knew the product, and I ran everything else.” The death of the family dog was the first omen in Lynn’s life that things were slowly turning for the worst. Soon after, her brother died, and things began to feel “off” with her husband. “I guess when you do not get love at home you start looking for it in other places,” Lynn said, her eyes sad as she reflected on the breaking point of her marriage. Starting over for Lynn was an opportunity to let go.
With her defunct marriage and old life behind her Lynn had that realization that: “We grasp onto external things for our happiness,” With this she had the idea to become a Buddhist monk if they let her. “55 is the cutoff age, after that you are too old, and they do not want you,” she joked.
There is no age limit though to becoming a certified yoga instructor though, and after Lynn received her certification she began teaching yoga to cancer patients. “I believe yoga has curative properties that have not been explored.”
Before her interest in yoga and Buddhism, Lynn claimed she had an addiction to self-help books. “I bought everything,” she told me, “but Tony Robbins was just was not cutting it.” Given the 10.4-billion-dollar self-help industry, it is evident that Lynn was not alone in her search for a better life.
Self-help products aside, there are products to help us look better, smell better, and feel better. I felt that familiar mild excitement walking into Bayshore Mall in Ottawa to find Buddhism books for research. I felt the buzz of possibility tingle with my first steps on the tile. The engineered smells of Cinnabon and Starbucks promise a trademarked treat you could never replicate. I imagine: sliding on a crisp new pair of shoes, holding a weighty tablet computer with a stunning display and puncturing the cellophane on product x and inhaling its newness. Only a student budget cannot afford any of the above, and before I get to the bookstore I already feel the crash. Wave after wave of indifferent faces, mothers dragging bags and crying children, young salesmen with too much cologne and saleswomen with too much make up, the equally rehearsed interactions between cashiers and consumers. Leaving, I hope meeting a Buddhist monk can purify me in some way.
Walking into Joyful Land Buddhist Centre in Ottawa, I was greeted by contractor there to do kitchen renovations. He seemed right at home with Kelsang, whose yellow and maroon robe caught me by surprise. A tall, pale man in his 40s, Kelsang exudes an aura of calm authority.
“We think we’re so smart.” Kelsang explained the unpopularity of religion, as we sat in the foyer. He did not absolve himself from this claim, “I used to inject my psychology background into my Buddhist lectures only to find they were detracting from the true message in Buddhism,“ Kelsang admitted. The new resident monk at Joyful Land Buddhist Centre, Kelsang studied for 10 years before becoming ordained in 2011. Before Buddhism, Kelsang worked for nearly 15 years as a psychotherapist. “Psychotherapy works well,” he explained, “but only temporarily.”
Kelsang’s transition to Buddhism was not sparked by crises like Lynn’s; instead it was gradual, albeit a little too gradual for his liking, “If I have to be reborn as a human again, I pray not to waste so much time! [I’ve] learned that temporary liberation is not enough, that is what I mean when I say I was wasting my time.”
Kelsang is also not wasting his time on material goods, as he explained our insatiable desire to buy, “When you buy CDs, you need a CD rack …you need a car to go buy things, you need a bigger house to keep all your things.” I asked him what advice he would have for anyone caught in this cycle. “Take out all your stuff and lay it out in front of you and ask: Have any of these things made me happier?” My answer was a reluctant no.
It is not that I did not believe Kelsang, but something keeps his point from sinking in completely. A lifetime of being bombarded with advertising was the main culprit, I thought. If only it were so simple. In fact, it’s more simple than that, as Kelsang explained, “It is all in the mind.”
If only it was easy to make time for our minds. Driving to Shambhala, I saw billboards, heard radio commercials and was diverted by my cellphone as I drove by others in the same mindless stream.
I had to go out of my way to stop moving, stop thinking, and stop searching – to just stop. Sitting silently with these strangers at Shambhala, I am able to take note of my judgmental thoughts, glancing down at my feet, I acknowledge that I am here too: Driving on the same roads, walking in the same malls, and dealing with the same kinds of problems. We all came to take a pause --not to forget-- and just sit with it all. “Come back to your breath,” we are reminded. I know it is worth coming back
Michael is a misplaced Trent Business Administration grad exploring Buddhism. He has recently traded in a career in accounting for a student card and a student budget. His other interests include: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Graphic Design. In this blog he will explore the bizarre and the profound at various Buddhist temples in Ottawa.