Introduction to Buddhist Practice for Non-Buddhist


Mark de Solla Price (?? GakuJô), a Secular Humanist Chaplain Speaking on Buddhist Practice at Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center

I would like to welcome all of you to the Buddhist Explorers Group. I really appreciate each of you braving the blizzard of 2009 and finding your way here to our new venue at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. Our Buddhist Explorers Group has been meeting for about fifteen years across town. For those who might not know the Center, our new home has been such vital part of the community for twenty-six years this month. I’m really excited about our future here and I personally am very grateful that Orie Urami, could make room for our program with less than a week’s notice.
We will begin promptly at one o’clock and end promptly at two. We will start with an introduction and explanation, then the meditation for about 10 minutes followed by a “Dharma talk” or teaching. Most months these talks are by invited guest teachers – today, you’ve got me. We’ll wrap up with some time where you can share your questions and comments.
My name is Mark de Solla Price and I’m one of the lay leaders of our Buddhist Explorers Group. I am also a beginning student of Soto Zen Buddhism. In addition to being a Buddhist, I also consider myself to be both an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist. I’ll talk a little more about theology and ethical philosophy a little later after the meditation.
When I became HIV-positive in the early 1980s, there were no effective treatments for the disease. Our only option, in the bad old days, was peer-support and patient empowerment activism. I was one of many members of support groups and political actions. At the time, I was lucky and happened not to get sick, and since I tended towards being a bit obsessive compulsive and made my living as a technology and management consultant, I was the guy who made the handouts and compiled the notes, so as the early trailblazers died off, I stepped in and inherited being an accidental group leader. This, in turn, led to my writing my book “Living Positively in a World with HIV/AIDS” to carry on their legacy. This work kept on in magazine articles and the varied content on our website.
My husband Vinny Allegrini and I are featured in an HBO documentary “Positively Naked,” about POZ Magazine’s ten-year anniversary empowering folks living with HIV/AIDS. In the film, my friend Sean Strub, the magazine’s founder, describes the spiritual path of living with AIDS:

“Feeling your mortality enables a clarity of focus; you learn about friends, about real love. You really get an understanding of what unconditional love means. You also learn that everybody is going to die; and everybody knows that, so that isn’t news to anyone. So it isn’t about having information, but it’s about learning it, and experiencing it in your life, and realizing it. That makes the time we have while we’re alive precious and important. And for, I think, a lot of survivors of AIDS, it’s given them the inspiration and even courage to make their lives important and to have meaning.”

I know this is true for me. It has led to why I’m driven along my ethical and spiritual path. Just for the record, I am not a Zen Master nor have I “received dharma transmission” to be authorized to be a Buddhist Teacher. Some of you may have read that I’m an Interfaith Minister, which is legally true, and I’m authorized by the city of New York to officiate at weddings and funerals, but I am not a Unitarian Universalist minister. I am just a fellow student on a spiritual path with an imperfect understanding and imperfect practice. I’m glad we’re all here to Explore Buddhist Practice together.
I’m wearing the traditional lay robes that are encouraged for all students in my temple’s tradition. It’s comfortable, uniformly boring and esthetically calming. Imagine a room full of activists – it would be hard to meditate because you’d want to read everybody’s T shirts and buttons. It also has the effect like school uniforms. There’s no picking the right outfit or judging who isn’t cool. On the downside, it was Mark Twain who said “beware any activity that requires buying new clothes.”
Some more housekeeping before we get to our meditation. There is a bright pink evaluation form and we’d really like to hear back from each of you after our program today. There’s also a piece of shameless self-promotion: my husband Vinny is in the SAGE Singers and they have their holiday concert on Tuesday at 7 PM at Rutgers Church on West 73rd Street. More details are on the holiday-themed flyer.
I have put together a ten-page Buddhist handout with some background information that you can read at your leisure. The electronic version is on-line with a link from our Facebook group page, as are the text and audio podcast from my program today.
On page two of the handout, you’ll see the exciting programs we have through April. Page three is the newly unveiled (11/12/09) Charter for Compassion (please go to the website to add your name in support before the end of the year); Page Four has the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles and Sources; Page Five are the comparable “precepts” which are the ethical heart of the Zen Peacemaker Order’s Work and Practice; Page Six are the “Recommendations for Zen Student Practice” from my teacher at Village Zendo, Roshi Enkyo – I put them in because they are wise, but also because they suggest a much higher level of commitment and showing up than many of us are used to in other spiritual paths; Page Seven is a good list of some places to shop-around if you’re interested in Buddhist practice; you’ve got to love page eight – any spiritual path that has a sacred document with a smiling cartoon frog, gets points in my book. The last two pages are a piece I wrote for Village Zendo Journal that’s about personal narrative and compassion.
As I said, I’ll talk a little more about some of the why and what of Buddhism, theology and ethical philosophy a little later after the meditation. For me, the most important part Buddhism is all about regular practice rather than just theoretical study. It is similar to learning how to play a musical instrument. One learns through practice, not by reading about technique.
There are a lot of different possibilities for meditation practice. People are different, and different practices work well for different people. When you find something that works for you, stick with it. If it doesn’t feel right for you, try another form. Today we’ll practice Soto Zen Counted Breath meditation, which is the same style we did last month.

Let’s begin.
Every body is unique and you are not the same as you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. Listen to your body more than you listen to me. Make any changes that you need to, to be right for your body today.
You’ll want to put down anything you might be holding on to; turn off your mobile phone; You don’t want to be sitting on a wallet or other stuff in your pockets. Some people like to take off their shoes so they feel more grounded to the floor.

Posture: you want to be in a comfortable position with an erect spine, open chest, soft belly, so you can breathe fully and easily. Many Buddhist traditions sit on a cushion on a mat, like I am, but I sit much higher than is typical because of health issues with my back and legs. Unfortunately, we don’t have Zafu cushions and Zabuton mats available today, but you might want to try them out and see if they are helpful for you.
As you are sitting in a chair, move a few inches forward, so your back isn’t against the back of the chair – this will help you not to slouch and maintain a straight posture, as if your body was a puppet suspended by a string from the crown of your head. You will want to plant your feet firmly on the floor.
How you hold your hands is called the “Mudra”. Right hand palm up, left hand on top of it; thumbs just touching with your hands resting in your lap. If your mind starts to wander, you might notice your thumbs drifting apart or pushing too hard together. This helps as an early warning system to re-focus your attention.
If you close your eyes, it’s easy to drift off to sleep, so we keep them open half-way not looking at anything just gazing down at 45 degrees in a soft focus.
You should clear your mind, breathe in, breathe out, and count one. Breathe in, breathe out, and count two. Breathe in, breathe out, and count three. If your mind wanders and you start to think about your afternoon plans, or you start looking around the room or move, return your attention to an empty mind, breathe in, breathe out, and start again counting one. If you get to ten, you start over again at one. Everybody’s mind wanders off, the key is to keep “waking up” again and clearing the mind. That’s the whole heart of this practice: keep “waking up”
We’ll begin with three strikes of the gong. We’ll meditate for ten minutes today, and we’ll end with two strikes of the gong.

[starting gong, 10-minute meditation, ending gong]
Siddh?rtha Gautama was a Hindu prince who lived about 2,500 years ago. Wikipedia guesses at his birth in 563 BC to his death in 483 BC. This is the person we call “the Buddha” which means “awakened one” or “the enlightened one.” That’s him depicted in the bronze statue next to the UU chalice and the Tibetan-style prayer wheel with the serenity prayer.
The traditional mythology is that he was a prince in what is now Nepal, who lived a very sheltered life until he was about 30. When he finally encountered sickness, old age and death, he tried to overcome them by fasting and living the life of an ascetic monk. That didn’t help. Then he meditated and upon deep reflection he finally “woke up” and became enlightened to let him see things with compassion and understanding, to find the Middle Way, a path of moderation and one-ness with all things.
The modern Unitarian Universalist principles use the terms “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” and “The inherent worth and dignity of every being.” In sports training, they use phrases like “being in the zone.”
I think of enlightenment as a direction, not a destination. For me, it’s like health or happiness. One doesn’t really ever become “completely healthy” but through practice, one can become healthier, or happier, or more enlightened. For me, on my good days, for a little while, I can find this. I feel at peace, happy, productive, and aware of being part of the whole world. Then it slips away again. I follow my spiritual practice so I feel that way more often, for longer periods with deeper intensity.
It is important to understand that the Buddha is not a super-natural being or divine prophet. He was just a person like you or me. In fact, tradition says that he was not the first Buddha nor was he the most recent one. The purpose of the statue of Buddha is to remind ourselves that each of us has that potential within ourselves; we just need to “wake up”

Buddhism is very different from the Abrahamic Monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Some would argue that Buddhism is not even a religion because it does not include (or exclude) any theology or religious belief or concept of God. Rather, it’s a set of ethical philosophy and lifestyle practices.
I like Fuji Apples and dislike Concord Grapes. These facts are certainly important to me, but they aren’t anything that is important to my Buddhist Practice. This is similarly true about religion and Buddhist Practice:
I know Buddhists who are devote Christians, Jews and Muslims. I know Rabbis, Ministers, Priests and Nuns who are also Buddhists. I also know LOTS of Atheists who are Buddhists. There are also many forms of Buddhism that do include supernatural belifs and religious creeds and dogma. For example, Tibetan Buddhists believe that Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama
Not unlike Buddhism, being modern Unitarian Universalism is also more of an ethical philosophy rather than a religion. There’s been a long history where the two overlap. The very first English translations of a Buddhist text appears in Unitarian-affiliated… The Dial Magazine, published by Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Margaret Fuller and contributed to by Henry David Thoreau.
According to a recent study by the Unitarian Universalist Association, UUs identify themselves as Humanist (54%), Agnostic (33%), Earth-centered (31%), Atheist (18%), Buddhist (16.5%), Christian (13.1%), Pagan (13.1%). Put another way: one out of 6 UUs are also Buddhists.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote in his book “A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1:” that “We become good people not by thinking good thoughts but by doing good deeds again and again” I think that’s true, but that’s only part of the picture, because our minds are so full of chatter that we need to clear our mental and spiritual decks. That’s where meditation comes in.
Buddhist Practice is something one does every day like aerobic exercise or yoga or swimming or eating right. Start off a little every day (maybe 5 of 10 minutes each day) and slowly build up to say 30 minutes twice a day. You don’t have to have perfect understanding or perfect form to get enormous benefits. I’m a big reader, but as I said earlier, no amount of reading about these things takes the place of actually doing them regularly.
There are lots of different styles of Buddhist practice and styles of meditation. I tend towards being a bit obsessive compulsive, so I like to discipline and order of Soto Zen Counted Breath meditation; Vinny come from a tradition of guided mediation (he’ll be leading the group in April); Tibetian Buddhist include chanting; Won Buddhist include a form of yoga; In my 20s and 30s, I followed a Taoist practice of Tai Chi;
Shop around and see what’s right for you. If you find something that you like, stick with it for a while. Just like eating a few healthy meals or going to the gym for a few days might be a good start, sticking with whatever works for you is what make you physically and spiritually healthy.
A friend’s credo is to do something every day for both his personal physical fitness and his for his spirit. It shows. I invite you to do the same thing.
My teacher, Roshi Enkyo founder of the Village Zendo suggests that every day we meditate, study, communicate, act and care. On my desk is a plque that says “be here now” and “do what you are doing” I’d like to spend the rest of our time doing communicating and caring and being here now, by going round-robin around the group. Sharing how you are right now.
That you all for sharing your time today. I ask you all to fill out the bright pink evaluation forms. This wonderful space costs us $30 each month to meet, so if you’re able, please contribute what you can into the black Buddha Bowl.

Next month, January 17, 2010, we have my friends Koshin Paley Ellison and Chodo Robert Campbell from New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care share their Zen Buddhist Perspective on Hospice Care and Chaplaincy. Perhaps you saw the article about their program in last week’s Sunday New York Times.
Thank you and safe journey home.