Sunday, March 29, 2009


Saturday night in my apartment. Try sleeping through this. I'm working on my patience :)

Bloomington has a very large and active Buddhist community, and I'm sure that my biggest regret once I leave here will be not exploring and participating in that opportunity more. I need to find a way to make time in my remaining schedule; I've heard so many great things.

I became part of a conversation yesterday as a paramedic was describing a mutual acquaintance of ours to me, "He's a Buddhist, but a little extreme at times. If someone kills a spider or a fly he gets upset and will say something". I smiled and acknowledged the fact that I'm also a practicing Buddhist. The paramedic asked me if I thought the fact that killing a bug was 'extreme'. "No, I stated, that's pretty much it".

All of this led into a discussion on how I could have been a Buddhist and a Army Special Forces soldier at the same time. I often get asked this. I really don't have a good answer, and I never did. Certainly I was not the only one, clearly there are Buddhist police officers, doctors, and others that make life and death decisions on a daily basis. Somehow answering that particular question was never very important to me. I'm at peace with my spirituality and my profession. They may seem incongruent to some, but to me they just... are.


rosalie said...

..i've nearly always been appreciating your posts and your way of thinking. but this one and especially the photo nearly just gives me the creeps- i mean, how can you think and live the way you do and still support this insanity of what the big concerns (e.g. coca cola- just google some keywords as 'coca cola' and 'truth' or something like this and there you'll get the most diverse facts..) of this so-called western society do?? sorry, but i don't get this.. :(
there seems to be such a big contradiction in thinking and to live all those thoughts.. yeah, indeed it's quite hard to be consequent in every part of life, but i guess there are a few basics that come into question which are, well, simply just basic..

Zak said...

I don't think there is any incongruity at all. What I think is most important is the intention. As someone in a warrior profession, you engage in violence in order to protect the lives of others. If you act without malice, then there is no problem (of course, easier said than done when confronting someone that is trying to kill you or seems to think it is ok to throw grenades into a kindergarten). Of course, this is a very simplistic explanation, but I'm sure you take my meaning.

A spider on the wall (assuming it's not a black widow or such) poses no danger, so why kill it. Of course, a brown recluse in my kid's room is probably getting squashed, but I do my best to squish it without undo agression.

Anyway, saying you can't be both a Buddhist and a warrior reeks of dualism. Of course, I'm not yet sure exactly what that means, but it sounds good. (at this point, if someone tries to engage you in a debate on the nature of reality, just pat them on the head and utter "you have much to learn grasshopper."). Also, some of the greatest warrior cultures have been Buddhist - the Gurkhas, Shaolin, the Samurai.

I really enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up

America's 1st Sgt. said...

Usually that question is asked by those with no concept of spiritual or military disciplines.

Nepal is primarily Buddist if I am not mistaken and home of Ghurkas utilized by the UK and Hong Kong. So Buddist soldier shouldn't be new concept.

I have been asked the same question about being a Christian in the Marine Corps. One discipline actually compliments the other I think.

Eric said...

@rosalie - I'm not sure what you're driving at here. Can you be more explicit? Are you offended by the photo, and if so why? The photo was taken by me of a party that my roommates were having on a Saturday night. This is the reality of college life, and I use the photo to illustrate the challenges I face as a 45-year old Buddhist temporarily living amidst several 21-year old college students. I was not using the photo to condone or condemn their lifestyle, that's not my place. It's only illustrative of how hard it is to get some needed sleep on a Saturday night.

Ash said...

How can you, a Buddhist, be involved in a profession that involves killing. It is a profession whose ends are destruction and suffering? That is a question more often posed in the West than in Asia where Buddhism has become more deeply entrenched. The question still begs an answer, so here are a few points that might help non-Buddhists, and novice Buddhists better understand how it is that Buddhists can become exemplary police officers, soldiers.

The Four Nobel Truths form the foundation of our religion, and it’s true Buddhism is primarily built on the problem of suffering. What is suffering and what are its causes? Why does suffering exist, and is there any way that it can be avoided? How can one avoid suffering? Buddhism is a diagnosis and prescription for suffering. The Eight-Fold Path provides the course of treatment for those who are serious about the cure. The two most relevant parts of the Eight Fold Path in this instance are “Right Action” and “Right Livelihood”. Amongst the injunctions for “Right Action” we are told, ”to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently”. Then in “Right Livelihood” we are to avoid, “dealing in weapons, living beings (raising animals for food, slavery, prostitution, etc.), or as a butcher”.

These fundamental elements of the Teaching seem to support the popular notion that good and true Buddhists should avoid anything that might lead to killing or harming other living creatures. The source of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path are from the Theravada Pali Sutras that date almost contemporaneously with the Historical Buddha’s life. In that tradition, the Buddha’s teaching was directed primarily at providing a Path for individuals seeking liberation from suffering by personal enlightenment. The Eight-Fold Path, then, was and remains fundamental to the Monastic discipline followed by Buddhist monks, nuns and Priests. For laymen to follow exactly the same constraints as monks and priests is almost impossible without destroying society as a whole resulting in even greater suffering. Indeed until Mahayana Buddhism evolved several hundred years later, Buddhists were almost exclusively made up of wandering monks and nuns wholly dependent upon begging for their existence.

Mahayana Buddhism with its Bodhisattva Ideal opened the doors to common, ordinary laymen by the promise that Enlightenment will eventually be obtained by all sentient beings, and that there is a progression from total ignorance to fully understanding the nature of existence… and thus, Liberation. The lay Buddhist is expected to work always toward improving their understanding of the Teaching, to support one another and the clergy, and to live a focused mindful ‘Middle Way’ life. With the advent of Mahayana Buddhism, the popularity of Buddhism swelled and it became successfully exported to the rest of Asia, and the world at large. The short answer is that the Buddhist farmer, shopkeeper, soldier or police officer isn’t held to the same standard as Buddhist clergy. Buddhist in those occupations remain bound to minimize to the best of their ability and understanding the suffering that is inherent in their practice. One may raise a pig for slaughter, but the pig must be treated humanly. The soldier or police officer may fight and kill, but not indiscriminately, or with the intent of inflicting suffering. Each is responsible for weighing the suffering their actions will cause carefully (within the limits of their knowledge and understanding) against the suffering that will result. To kill a mad dog in the streets where children play is almost a no-brainer here.

Buddhist clergy, with its more rigid disciplinary rules, actually is easier for most folks because they have a black and white take on proper behavior. Lay Buddhists, on the other hand, are faced every day with countless choices that have to be weighed. Every thought, word and action will inevitably cause some degree of suffering, so we are constantly required to choose that thought, word, and/or action that will result (in our limited understanding) in the least suffering. To fight and kill enemy soldiers/combatants whose purpose is to extend doctrines that will increase the general suffering is a perfectly rational thing for a Buddhist soldier. To serve in a military unit, to kill and seek the defeat of forces that applaud the extension of despotism and slavery is a meritorious action. The Buddhist soldier takes personal responsibility for each life he takes, for all the suffering that results from his thought/words/action. He, or she, will accept the consequences of taking on that burden as the price to limit the greater suffering that would occur if tyranny were left unchecked.

Now let us look at this a different way. Perceptual Reality is an illusion, and suffering is bound up in our acceptance of the common sense notion that it is real. People seek to avoid suffering in all its forms, and they typically respond to suffering in common ways that result in extending suffering beyond the unavoidable. We all are born, lose, become sick and wounded, and eventually we die. Those are unavoidable facts within Perceptual Reality. Some try to assuage their suffering by pursuing wealth, power and fame. Envy, greed, and despotism result; suffering is extended exponentially, while the individual’s own suffering is magnified, and at best deferred. Seeking after pleasure without regard to the suffering that is likely to follow is a hollow response to that we cannot avoid. Perceptive, or Objective, Reality is one of multiplicity and is bound up in the four dimensions. It is: This and That, Then, Now and Later. Within that paradigm change and conflict are unavoidable, yet we all live within the constraints of Perceptive Reality.

For Buddhists, this Floating World is an illusion and suffering is only finally conquered with our Enlightenment and mergence into Ultimate Reality where the multiplicity of time, space and change do not exist. In Ultimate Reality, that Great Ineffable Oneness, there is no suffering, so the Enlightenment Experience is truly the end of separateness and suffering. In the meantime Ultimate Reality “dreams” Perceptual Reality, and we dream creatures act out our little personal dramas filled with suffering. Can one dream creature kill another, if neither exists? Of course, we can and do that, and so the chain of suffering continues to sustain the Perceptual World. The Buddhist soldier who understands the insubstantial nature of this world, and who accepts it while doing his/her best to constrain and mitigate the suffering associated with our Illusory World, is if anything capable of becoming an exceptionally effective warrior. The Japanese Samurai, who were largely Buddhist’s whose self-discipline and keen focus made them, are often cited as being exceptional and effective warriors. Focus on mindfulness; clear-seeing, and total commitment to the action at hand is hard to beat.

Sorry for the length of this, but it's a question that begs consideration.


Jessica Howells said...

I would have to say I think this is a very thoughtful and accurate depiction of our pathetic excuse of a life as college students. I often think how immature it is to be binge drinking just because everyone else is, but as hard as it is for me to admit because I consider myself a very level headed individual, I do succumb to peer pressure. As for Rosalie, I think you should think before you judge, Eric merely responded to an ad for a place to live for a few months not knowing what he was getting into, it's not like he would rather be living there than at home with his family...
Eric- thanks for the links, I think your blog is very interesting and I look forward to reading more!

Gertrude said...

I have come to understand a few things after a few years as a medic in an environment where life means very little and is easily traded for material things. I see no issue with your place as a buddhist and a protection specialist.As for getting sleep on a saturday night with a roomie who is in college? HA! Good luck with that.

Ash said...

Actually, it's probably a 'good thing' that the Zen Traveler ended up rooming with these children. We don't change the world by preaching at it, or ordering people to change the ways they think and behave. The Zen Traveler is strong enough that he won't be changed by associating with folks working so hard to suffer, but he has been an example to them of less destructive thought and conduct. Did his presence change them over the past weeks into proto-Buddhists? Nope, but the seeds have been planted. Change comes in little bits, and is always in my experience, change within the person.

Buddhists change the world by changing themselves... and that is almost as tough as convincing the world to give up television.

Damon Atkinson said...

Thank you so much for your eloquent explanation of the 4 noble truths and 8 fold path. I have not found a more clearly written explanation of the applicability of these teachings to my simple, western life.

I see no conflict in your chosen career paths, soldier, security professional, paramedic, and college roomate with being a Buddhist. Right mindedness and a compassionate approach to these areas of life do not have to conflict with Buddhist practice. You don't seem to approach these situations with malice or aggression, there is clearly great thought given to those that you encounter and their situation. Your insights into your paramedic training experiences leave little doubt as to your compassion.
I have always enjoyed reading your blog and will continue to look forward to reading further of your Zen Travels.

Long-time RN said...

Oh my, not much has changed since the party days at Madison in the early 70's!

Enlightening as always. Best to you as your schedule winds down.

Cathy B

walkingtowardrefuge said...

Eric - I stumbled upon your blog yesterday and look forward to visiting again. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and images....

I would like to suggest a possible resource for folks, based on reading the comments here. The Buddhist Military Sangha blog written by LT Jeanette Shin, CHC, USN at:

All my best,