By Greg Suffanti
QFWF no. 2, March 2018
I was asked a couple of weeks ago if I’d be interested in starting a Buddhism blog. I thought, “well, I’ve been asked, so I should try to help if I can.”
Then I started thinking about what I should write about after my twenty years of studying Buddhism and calling myself a Buddhist. I live in Amsterdam and am going to the Washington, D.C. area next week to help my mom and my brother move into their respective new homes.
I emigrated to Holland in March of 2000, and became a naturalized citizen in 2008. I thought this might make an interesting beginning, to write about my experiences of going back to my childhood home and helping two family members move, from a Buddhist perspective. But, the idea felt a bit grandiose, like I’m trying to dispense advice, or even worse, hide behind Buddhism in order to shield myself from experiencing the world. Or myself.
I set out this sunny and promising-spring-to-be-soon morning to visit a friend that had recently moved to the outskirts of the city. It took me two trams and about fifteen minutes of walking, but I finally got there, nearly 1½ hours after starting my journey. Her “new” apartment sits in a building called the Oklahoma. She said when she first saw the name it made her smile. When she noticed the balconies with different colored glass, it was love. After she gave me a tour of her sun-filled new home, with an aquamarine blue balcony, we sat and talked.
We are both volunteers at Maitreya Instituut in Amsterdam and the conversation quickly turned to the center and what could be done to help it further. The Amsterdam center almost closed last year and we are both a bit fearful for the future. Maitreya Instituut is the oldest Buddhist organization in the Netherlands. I started volunteering there in February of 2001. Learning about the teachings of Buddhism, called the Dharma, has been a real inspiration in my life. Having Dharma friends has also been a real inspiration in my life. My friend is full of ideas and enthusiasm, and this is wonderfully contagious. After a couple of hours we said our goodbyes and I headed out for the tram, well caffeinated and desperately in need of food. Low blood sugar. Again. Will I ever learn?
Clouds had been gathering, and as I walked out of the building I was met with a dreary grey sky and an icy wind that reminded me that the melting ice on the canals meant that it was still winter. The spring fever I’d felt earlier that morning seemed far away as I walked briskly to the tram stop. I felt impatient and grumpy. Warning signs that I’d waited too long to eat. It was now after two in the afternoon, and I’d had a couple of sesame crackers, two chocolate cookies, 1 stroopwafel and 4 cups of coffee. I mentally made plans to stop and get something to eat as soon as I was close to home. About 4 stops before I needed to get out, a heavy-set woman stepped in. She took the seat diagonally across from me and we sat facing each other. She immediately took out a sandwich and began eating. I immediately felt irritated and physically turned to my right so I could stare outside. I scarcely noticed the old couple that came in and found seats just behind me. At the next stop, I shifted my position again, and “this” woman and I were once again facing each other. She then started speaking to me in English, as if I were a tourist, explaining to me that I was sitting in a red seat, and red seats were for the handicapped and elderly. There were plenty of empty seats as far as I was concerned. Truth be told, I was unaware of my “special” seat.
The thing about meltdowns in my case is that they happen so fast, it’s like I don’t even realize what has come out of my mouth until it is too late. Since my stroke in 2013, my ability to filter things out has radically diminished. In a situation like this, my filter is non-existent. Did I respond to “this” woman by simply saying something like, “okay, thank you?” No, not even close. Now “I” was irritated and slighted and felt like I was being talked down to. She hit weak spot of wanting to belong, to not be a tourist. I barked back at her in Dutch, “This is incredible! You sit there and eat a sandwich, which is not allowed, and now you’re giving me advice? Piss Off!” She gave me the finger, and mercifully I got out at the next stop. Mad. Upset. Beautiful morning? What beautiful morning? I practically ran to a sandwich shop and guzzled my food down, sitting there full of anger, knowing it was going to take about an hour of talking to myself before I would calm down. I did my shopping, and by the time I bought some cards at the card shop, I was able to be friendly to the sales clerk. But I was still stewing inside, angry at myself for my childish and inappropriate outburst, but also equally aware that if all I felt was guilt and anger, then nothing would be solved. There would be no chance for growth.
Reacting to feelings of guilt is not an approach to life advocated in Buddhism. One of the things that first attracted me to Buddhism was this scientific approach to the mind. Buddhism teaches that guilt serves no purpose and can even be self-destructive. One should learn from negative experiences and apply a solution to the problem and then move on. I was very lucky, because the first Buddhist teacher I ever had, Ven. Kaye Miner, was open enough to share with students through the years that she had had a problem with anger. Ven. Kaye said that it was Buddhism’s teachings about destructive emotions that got her interested in Buddhism in the 1970’s. I found and still find that kind of honesty refreshing. There is always hope. All it means that I call myself a Buddhist is that I’m trying, making an effort. I remind myself of this practical reality. Ven. Kaye also said something so often about personal progress that these words still reverberate like a mantra through my head: “Baby steps”. Yes, real progress and genuine growth take time. The process is slow. In a perfect world I would run into “this” woman again, apologize, and buy her a cup of coffee.
Discipline and awareness of the self are essential in Buddhism, because it is exactly in these sorts of unwished for moments that healthy recovery from an unhealthy reaction is possible. It is me, working with my mind. I’ve got more experience with meltdowns than I care to admit to, and as I walked towards the final stretch of my journey, along the picturesque canal where I live, I searched my mind for teachings I could remember; teachings that would help me move on from this negative state of mind which was threatening to overtake me. This being possessed by anger and self-hatred I know of all too well from my own past history. The hard perfectionist Greg now works gently each day to make better friends with the caring and forgiving Greg. Especially forgiving myself when I make a mistake. From the Buddhist perspective, we are each responsible for our own futures.
Suddenly, I remembered some lines from a teaching I had last November from a visiting Lama named H.E. Song Rinpoche. He said, “I have this attitude that if the world is all sand, then I’m just a speck. What is the big deal if I make a mistake or the impression I make is bad. So what.”
He then went on to explain that this guilt or concern we feel is a form of attachment, and that that is not a solution to the problem. His suggestion was to think of techniques to apply emptiness teachings and to find techniques that allow you to see others’ worth. “Others are important too,” he added. He continued, saying that we have to understand our own limitations and that an attitude of “I don’t care what others think” can be helpful.
This is helpful to someone like me that automatically veers towards guilt reactions and feelings of low self-worth.
I start to feel better. Especially about myself. This “problem” I have is yet another opportunity for me to help myself move in a healthy direction, rather than repeating an old and unhealthy habit of self-recrimination. Through this process of self-examination and trying to apply what I have learned from my different teachers through the years, I move forward in my progression as a human being. I grow and know positive growth is possible. Buddhism is about having a warrior’s attitude towards problems. I choose to help myself.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “ultimately, you are your own guru.”
This is my real Buddhist world. This is why I study Buddhism and call myself a Buddhist. My anger is lessening through the years and I am growing happier. I experience the benefits of feeling this positive personal growth every day and this happier state encourages me to go on. These sorts of meltdowns are rarely happening anymore. I am thankful for all the wonderful people I know in my Buddhist world and thankful to live in “my” beautiful Amsterdam. When I am calm, I am happy and feel the world a friendly place. When I am angry, the world is my enemy. The Dharma continues to give me tools that allow me to work on cultivating the positive parts of myself as well as working away from the negative or unproductive parts. I am thankful to have made contact with Buddhism and to have met some incredible teachers who have truly helped, guided and inspired me. I am learning self-acceptance, warts and all!
So many of the things I’ve learned these past years are so practical and life enriching that I wish I had had access to these ideas much earlier in life. I would have loved to have had courses in high school entitled “realizing your full potential”. There is no Buddhist label needed.
As evening approaches, my mood stabilizes and my mind is again serviceable. I’m thankful for this tool chest of Buddhist ideas and practical techniques for self-help. I decide to write about this challenge I had today… I decide that if I’m going to write a Buddhist blog I must also follow the advice of my friend Ven. Khedrup: “Keep it real”.
 Source: triple-chocolate-meltdown
 Source: stroopwafel
 Source: Kaye Miner
 Source: Dalai Lama