Larry McClain sits regularly with One Dharma Nashville. He has written for a strangely eclectic mix of magazines spanning music (CD Review), travel (Delta’s in-flight magazine), Christian devotionals (Upper Room magazines), and even National Lampoon.
by Larry McClain
Being a Buddhist in the South — now that’s dukkha.
When I say “South”, I don’t mean “south Asia.” I’m referring to Dixie…specifically Nashville, Tennessee.
At first glance, this region isn’t fertile ground for The Middle Way. Most of American Buddhism’s leading figures grew up in huge cities. That’s why we have, for instance, Roshi Bernie Glassman and not a single Roshi Billy Bob Scruggs.
Nashville is just a mid-sized city — the gleaming buckle of the Bible Belt. It’s also a hotbed for NASCAR, where goofily clad race car drivers grind out lap after lap — the wheel of samsara at 200 miles per hour.
The Buddhist tradition of noble silence stands in stark contrast to Southern logorrhea. Yes, a Southerner will tell you what he had for breakfast this morning, who he’s rooting for on American Idol, etc. The gab is endless.
And here’s the real kicker: most Southerners are remarkably oblivious to the Here-and-Now. A typical Nashville churchgoer is more interested in the past (what the apostle Paul did 1,950 years ago) and the future (what heaven will be like, as evidenced by the country radio hit, “I Can Only Imagine”).
Despite all this, there’s a healthy and growing Buddhist community in Nashville that spans the entire spectrum: Theravada, Zen, Shambhala. At various sanghas, you can find former CEOs, numerous psychotherapists, a Stanford Law School grad, and a hit songwriter or two. (This is Music City, after all.)
Like many red-state seekers, my first exposure to Buddhism was through books and online dharma talks. I now have dog-eared copies of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Noble Eightfold Path and Ajahn Sumedho’s The Mind And The Way — and they’ve served as excellent guideposts.
When I first appeared at the One Dharma sangha, I was the meditation equivalent of the small-town singer who wanders wide-eyed into Nashville looking to expand his horizons. The One Dharma group was launched by two longtime Zen meditators who wanted to draw from all the Buddhist traditions to enhance and deepen the practice experience.
Initially, I was one of the “chair guys” at One Dharma because (at 6 ft. 2 inches), I wasn’t quite ready for a zafu and zabuton. Each week, we chant a portion of the Diamond Sutra in English, starting slowly and ending at breakneck speed. (There’s nothing similar in the Christian world; they never recite the Lord’s Prayer that fast!)
The One Dharma group has been patient when I crack jokes and engage in what the Buddha would call “idle chatter” prior to meditation. I’m probably the only regular who says stuff like, “May I approach the bench, your honor” when I see someone arrive with a kneeling bench.
We conclude each meeting with a lively discussion of dharma reflections by Charlotte Joko Beck, Tara Brach, and others — including some penned by group members. The next day, I’m usually replaying some dharma phrase in my head, the same way I thrilled to a Jimi Hendrix riff decades ago. I can find myself in a reverie, on the banks of the Irrawaddy with U Ba Khin or in a Kyoto punk nightclub with Brad Warner. Then the daydream ends…and I’m back in the South among the televangelists and good ol’ boys.
But here’s the good news: meditation is chipping away at my aversion to all things Confederate. My progress on the path is most evident when I visit my local Wal-Mart in a blue-collar suburb of Nashville. Before delving into Buddhist teachings, I created enormous suffering each time I visited the Land of Low Prices. I considered Wal-Mart — especially this one — to be a plebeian playground full of obese people with grating accents. And there I stood, an ex-New Yorker and former L.A. dude, heaping scorn on the entire bunch and concocting internal “stories” about what their scant schooling must have been like.
Then one day, I grabbed a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel…and the literal meaning of dukkha took on new dimensions before my very eyes. I looked around and saw moms trying to shepherd three kids through the checkout line and elderly shoppers riding motorized carts, looking gaunt and grim. There were no zesty consumers kicking up their heels like in TV commercials. This was Dukkhaville…and I understood.
Ajahn Sumedho often speaks of the inclusive nature of Buddhist meditation: everything belongs. For years, I had tried to practice Christ’s call to “love my neighbors as myself,” but all I had managed to do was judge them (and myself) mercilessly. Through vipassana, I’ve slowly begun to realize that everything belongs and everyone belongs. There’s no greater love than to allow others to fully be who they are, whether they’re at the NASCAR track or meditating in Marin County. (I’ve never experienced either, so how could I possibly judge those who have?)
Through meditation, I’ve come to understand that “sound is just sound,” and that the accents I’m hearing are not inherently redneck or suave. Sometimes I even hear the hint of a y’all in my own voice — and it brings a smile, not suffering.