By J. S. B.

Invitation to a high school reunion.
Suffering is caused by our obsession with self. Happiness is created by developing a true altruistic motivation. (Photo by matt s)

Recently, I received an invitation in the mail to my 35th high school reunion.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend this year’s event. I’m in prison; I don’t think the warden would approve a weekend furlough for my reunion. I didn’t RSVP to Peggy Conkle, the coordinator of the reunion. I’m sure she’ll understand.

While I was surprised to get the invitation, what surprised me more was my extreme reaction. Upon seeing Peggy’s return address on the envelope and realizing what was inside, I was immediately filled with overwhelming embarrassment and shame; my recently renewed self-esteem plummeted. The depth of these emotions caught me off guard. It wasn’t as if I was close to any of these people. I hadn’t kept in touch with any of them since graduation. I hadn’t seen any of them since the 25th reunion. So why was I wallowing in a mire of shame, embarrassment, and self pity?

Just a few days earlier, I had read about the eight worldly concerns. Now, I brought my reading to mind. First, I thought Wow! The Buddha really nailed it with the eight worldly concerns. He was a pretty smart guy, enlightened. Then, I contemplated my, everyone’s, obsession with these concerns the Buddha identified 2500 years ago.

Think about how much time, energy, and emotion we expend chasing wealth, happiness, a good reputation and praise; and avoiding poverty, suffering, a bad reputation, and criticism. Our idea of success and happiness here in the West is primarily pegged to wealth. Kathy Kelly, the peace activist, talks about how we raise our children with the idea that being a good citizen means consuming more and more material goods. And who doesn’t want to be happy and have the praise and respect of friends and family. But, it’s our extreme attachment, our obsession, with these worldly dharmas, as they are called, that gets us in trouble.

What do you notice about these eight worldly concerns? They’re all about the Self,
it’s all about me, me, me—our favorite topic. Once again, ego rears its self-centered, self-important head. I want wealth, happiness, a good reputation, and praise, often at the expense of others. I certainly don’t want poverty, suffering, a poor reputation, and criticism.

Looking at my life, I see how my relentless pursuit of the “good dharmas” led to ever-increasing heaps of “bad dharmas” suffering, criticism, and a poor reputation. On the surface, I appeared happy; I even had myself fooled for so long, but deep inside was a bubbling, boiling mass of depression, self-doubt, anger, and anxiety. Eventually, it all boiled over, and I ended up in prison.

My obsession with self wasn’t a love of self. Rather, I had an extreme loathing of self. My self-image was so bad. I could only feel better by establishing a spotless reputation and garnering the praise of absolutely everyone. I was driven towards the goal of being liked by all, no matter what it took. My therapist gave me a troubled look when I told her of my goal. “So, how are you doing with that?” she asked.

I came to prison with a deeply bruised self-image and a badly marred permanent record. I began to study Buddhism. I read about the suffering caused by our obsession with self, and how happiness is created by developing a true altruistic motivation. True bliss springs from the wisdom that the happiness of others is more important than our own happiness.

After a lifetime—no, many lifetimes—of self-centered existence, it’s difficult to change our focus. Bad habits are hard to break, especially for us Westerners. Ours is a culture that idolizes the strong individual who rises up above the masses. We see ourselves as that individual; we want to be Tiger Woods, Jessica Simpson, or the latest American Idol.

The Buddha’s path guides us through the process of changing our focus from the self to all sentient beings. First, we must understand our own suffering, grasp the true origin of that suffering. This enables us to realize the suffering of all sentient beings; we are in the same situation, cyclical samsara. And as long as we all are in samsara, we cannot find true bliss.

From the recognition of the suffering of all sentient beings arises compassion. Our ultimate goal is to achieve bodhicitta, the primary consciousness with the aspirations of wanting to benefit all sentient beings and wanting to become enlightened. We realize our limited capacity to benefit others, and that only by becoming a Buddha can we possess unending altruism.

This process includes the cultivation of equanimity, a mind free from attachment and aversion, a mind with equal concern for all beings. We also can meditate on the realization that, considering the vastness of our countless lives in samsara, each sentient being has been our mother over and over again. We need to recollect the kindness of our mother and repay that kindness.

The prison realm may be the most difficult, but at the same time, the most ideal realm in which to cultivate bodhicitta. Here I am, trying to develop equanimity, surrounded by people who, without a second thought, would rip off my radio, my tennis shoes, even my honey buns. All around me, as I meditate on compassion, conversations are raging in which every second and third words are “mother fucker.” Once at work, as a co-worker, who happened to be a mental health patient, and I restocked shelves in the warehouse, he told me in a very calm voice, “You know Jeff, I once had a psychotic episode and killed my mother.” I’ve got to be honest, it was difficult imagining him as my mother.

But, opportunities abound if you open yourself up to them. For me, sitting and meditating isn’t enough; I have to get out amongst the suffering. I volunteer here in a hospice program where I am directly benefiting others and greatly enhancing my understanding of my fellow sentient beings’ suffering.

Am I developing a true altruistic intention? Change is coming slowly. Compassion is taking root, though there are still too many “moments of self.” But that’s okay: I’m also learning to have compassion for myself. I have to be patient and remember just how long I’ve been all about me.

We all need to remember that potential for bodhicitta is there in each of us, it’s our natural consciousness. The desires and obscurations of samsara have clouded our Buddha nature; we just have to reunite with it. It’s a reunion of sorts—a reunion with the Buddha within.

Incarcerated people

Many incarcerated people from all over the United States correspond with Venerable Thubten Chodron and monastics from Sravasti Abbey. They offer great insights into how they are applying the Dharma and striving to be of benefit to themselves and others in even the most difficult of situations.