How Buddhists Messed Up My Childhood.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Jul 19, 2012
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“We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down.” ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

I would run and jump and run and jump…down the halls. The light sockets, high above, were my imaginary basketball hoops. One floor above, and five rooms down, people were sometimes trying to meditate or study.


Four months back, I wrote a little introduction to basic Buddhism in a fun, troublemaking way (as opposed to a serious, no-one-online-will-read-about-Buddhism kinda way).

Partially because Buddhism doesn’t think it’s better than other religions, or at the very least doesn’t want to convert others (the Dalai Lama has explicitly encouraged non-Buddhists to reconnect with their own roots rather than becoming Buddhist; we don’t go in for door to door conversions of heathens) I titled the blog: 10 Ways Buddhism is Better than Your Religion. The idea was to make fun of the tendency of religions to fight with one another about which one is wisest and most peacefullest. Most normal people got that the title was making fun of itself: you know, humor.

But one comment, well, didn’t. And it sparked some Buddhist-childhood-memories of my being told to be smaller, quieter.

From Anonymous:

Waylon, I worry that you’re turning the spiritual path into a celebration of yourself. Read your bio below the article; what would you lose from making it shorter and less clamorous? I question why we need to hear about any of the awards you’ve won, let alone the ones that were literally for “shameless self-promotion.”

About elephant’s content itself, you’re doing a good thing by making the Dharma accessible to a specific kind of reader, but I worry that you dilute it too much in the process.

This article is no exception. You claim its intent is “to make fun of the whole ‘our religion is better than yours’ theme.” Except that it doesn’t just make fun of it, it also half-ironically indulges in it. I wish you were more willing to see these kinds of distinctions, and stick only to what is really true.

Best wishes.

Someone replied, and suggested that the above commenter stop worrying, and “go back to their meditation cushion.”

My reply:

Buddhism, and Walt Whitman, advises that we celebrate life. There is no shame in ego, once we are aware of it. But your condescending remonstration brings up a powerful sidetrack to the Buddhist path: we ought to be ashamed of any sense of big-ness. I’m sorry, but that’s not correct. We are humbled in light of our duty, our vow to be of service. We are not humbled by anonymous folks telling us to be smaller. I am not small—I am nothing, and so are you. Given that: Pretty Much My Favorite Buddhist Quote Ever.
Yours, Waylon.

Does Buddhism say that we, or our egos, are bad? That we, and our egos should be quieter or smaller?

Or that we should see through our ego, stop taking ourselves seriously, and celebrate all of it, treat ego and neurosis as fertilizer for waking up, instead of trying to suppress and get rid of our weird, freaky, sweet, silly, wonderful selves?


Qualification: My childhood—raised in a Buddhist community in Boulder, then Vermont—was immensely fortunate (though my momma was immensely poor). It was a gift.

That said, my mentors and teachers and community weren’t perfect, and in one way in particular, I will not teach my children in the manner I was taught.

I will not teach them to feel small, or ashamed of their silliness, or big dreams, or foolishness.

Our Buddhist teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, once wanted to start a magazine. He wanted to name it “Celebration.” He constantly urged us to cheer up, even as we retained a sense of noble, romantic sadness. To make fun of ourselves. And to meditate more.

That’s a good guideline for life: Celebrate.

I was told to Shut Up in every room I (ran) into: Growing up Buddhist.

Growing up, I was full of energy. I was like a young colt—full of energy, not quite sure what to do with it. I was wild, insecure, proud, sweet, nerdy, competitive, fun. I was, like all of us, a lot of things.

I was also told to shut up more times than I can remember.

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, the Western “capitol” of Buddhism, back in the day. I moved at the age of 13 or 14 to Karme Choling, a Buddhist practice center where I lived for the next four or five years. During college in Boston, I half-lived at the Shambhala Meditation Center, where I served on the board as Rusung, and frequently visited Shambhala Mountain Center and Karme Choling to do various Buddhist programs, including four seminaries, and two or three dathuns.

Growing up in Boulder, in Trungpa Rinpoche‘s world, I felt more than welcomed. There were many of us young’uns, and we were (this is so key) welcome everywhere. We went to parties. We went to BBQs. We went to lectures at night, falling asleep on our parents’ laps. Because we weren’t always babysat, we got to partake in and learn from an amazing time, and a brilliant, ephemeral world—one we otherwise woulda missed.

We had Buddhist-inspired schools, and a Buddhist-inspired summer camp.

But as I grew older, and bigger, and louder, and there were fewer of “me”—I was usually the only boy at Karme Choling, except for during the summers, when everyone vacationed there—I ran into more and more tight, lidded authority. Trungpa Rinpoche taught that there were two kinds of ways to lead—we can cultivate our community as if they were flowers, basically good, yearning toward the sun—or we can seek to contain their mistakes, limit them, dominate them—we can lid their ball jars. Most of the Buddhist community—both domineering, uptight, killjoy ladies and gentlemen—taught me that I was small.

And it wasn’t just me. They taught one another that ego was bad. That we were bad.

But we aren’t. I hate to quote New Agey stuff, but that beautiful quote about our Deepest Fear comes to mind.

Next time you feel like you oughta be smaller, safer, less shiny…(re)read this.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

As just about the first and certainly the only Buddhist boy to live at a Buddhist center—not because, like everyone else, I wanted to meditate and do adult things—but simply as my place of residency at night while I went to school by day—I was pushed away and hushed up and frowned upon and yelled at. And I get it: I was noisy, wild, happy…young. I was different, and annoying as fuck.

The Dorje Kasung—sort of a Buddhist Boy or Girl Scouts whose slogan was “Victory over War”— was perhaps the greatest gift a young Buddhist could have. The Kasung taught me to harness my energy, to contain myself not out of self-condemnation, but out of relaxed dignity, elegance and devotion to enlightened society. But, even here, I was too often condescended to, told that I was too much. And usually, as children do, I knew their judgement was some sort of refracted dislike for themselves—they were judging me from afar, where it’s easiest to prejudge.

So it worked out well that I became one of the first four sergeants of the new generation. I was probably the loudest in my time, and I felt the love a dancer feels when dancing—I was fully immersed, in love with this path, and it loved me back. I had much to learn, and absorbed it quickly, and had much left to learn. I cried, and laughed, I strutted (we were actually taught to strut, to visualize our walk as if we were wearing swinging kilts…now celebration, that’s my kind of path). But we were also pushed, and reprimanded, but out of love, not fear.

And that’s what I slowly, finally learned. Even “free” of the Buddhist community, when I jumped into the entrepreneurial world, I found that my big bold bright ego, or whatever it is, made people love me or hate me. For many years, publishing elephant magazine, people wondered what to make of me. And elephant is what finally taught me to stop caring. My friend Dave Rogers helped, too. The negative comments? We just have to take in what we can learn from them. There’s always truth to them. Blocking bad or negative reviews is a good way not to learn, and to surround yourself with yes-men, and to guarantee your future downfall, your misery—for if we can’t walk with reality, reality will slam the door on our finger.

But the negative comments (something the internet, now, particularly specializes in) also taught me CCL, as Trungpa put it. Couldn’t care less. Give up. Do your thing. As the Japanese say, it’s the nail that sticks up that gets hammered down.

So all we have to do, in the end, is hoist our big brilliant sail. Listen for the wind. Order our crew gently, with humor, and with a sense of command. And steer your sailboat out toward that lighthouse. Whatever our mission in life is—generally, to be of benefit—let’s steer thataway, with flexibility based on feedback on how we’ll get there, and even what it’ll look like when we’re there.


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


19 Responses to “How Buddhists Messed Up My Childhood.”

  1. Sadly, I don't think this is restricted to the Buddhist community. I was discussing with a friend the other day that I believe the characteristics we prize in adults (tenacity, ambition, exuberance, big dreams) we—societally—often stifle in children. And it also seems that in many cases we are trying, now, to discourage it in adults as well. If you have huge world changing ideas and believe that you can make them happen, surely you must be an egotistical asshole.

    Desire to be of service in as large a way as possible—for the sake of being of benefit, not for ego gratification—is the point, the only goal that seems worthwhile, to me anyway. Let's steer thataway!

  2. Leah Carey says:

    Positively fantastic, Waylon. How the joy got taken out of most of the spiritual/religious paths is a mystery to me, because it seems like all the great teachers were essentially teaching about finding joy within…and then spreading it out. Which doesn't mean that we have to be so gosh darned humble all the time…in fact, in order to be a true teacher and leader, we HAVE to have enough ego to believe that our message is important and worthy of being heard.

    It happens that we went to high school together, Waylon, although I was kind of a quiet mouse back then, so I don't know if you'd remember me. My memory of you is as a happy-go-lucky, fun, interesting guy who I wanted to know better. I would not have guessed what was going on behind the scenes. Then again, no one at the Academy would have guessed what was going on behind the scenes at my home either. It's amazing how effectively we can all create masks, even – especially? – as teenagers.

    I hope you'll continue to be big, bold, brash and whatever else supports you in getting your message out. 🙂

  3. elephantjournal says:

    I think, actually, while far from mature of course, the happy go-luckyness was and is natural to most of us, and it's the "education" we get from life and our elders that, sometimes, can mask that joy.

  4. ann says:

    what a lovely, thoughtful and inspiring post. i think i might need to read it a few more times, because there are beautiful contradictions here to some of my (admittedly novice) interpretations of eastern philosophy that i'll likely spend my life trying to make sense of…but also, bravo for posting such a poignant response to a heated and judgmental comment.

  5. Jo Townson says:

    Great post! Love it.

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    Unfortunately or fortunately…all "Buddhist" communities are not the same. All of us who call ourselves Buddhist don't necessarily understand what the hell we are saying to one another either. If I am in the Tibetan community I experience "Buddhists" at different levels of practice so their experience is different…BUT…the vibe is generally the same and there is a cohesive sense of buddhist bodhicitta which is very evident. In the West…there is a general psychosis evident. The Buddhism is not as apparent. The Tibetan community do not talk about being Buddhist. Westerners talk about being Buddhist in a way where buddhism is not apparent. Unfortunately when we label our articles "Buddhist" this or that it really serves to confuse or misrepresent for the most part the Buddhism I practice, now this is only one example, I do not claim to be the only Buddhist. Buddhist articles make me cringe.

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Chagdud Gonpa, Chagdud Rinpoche's centers, always encouraged noisy children. During meditation. During Drupchens, etc. During formal teachings was the only time where silence was necessary. Rinpoche's reasoning for loud children being OK was that when one enters the Bardo there will be loud noise, lights, and confusion. So why should our meditation be any different.

  8. Jonathan says:

    Great treatment of an essential subject. Hells to the Yes.

  9. elephantjournal says:

    We're like the famous (infamous) fly in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind!

  10. tridentgirl says:

    Only a deeply sweet soul, one with the innocence and eagerness a puppy has to play and interact with the world around him, whose sparkly eyes and mischievous smile greet kindly the souls around him could have written such a post.

  11. Andréa Balt says:

    This explains a few things. 🙂 Great stuff, W. Buddhism used to make me yawn until I 'met' you. You put the "I'm not spiritual, I just practice being a good person" in perspective and that was refreshing. Oh, and number 2 was when I saw the "non-new agey" tag all over elephant. I thought, by Jeddhah (combination of Jesus & Buddha & other people), I've got to check this out.

  12. muks says:

    When I was seven years old my father married a Buddhist woman. From then on she was my step-mother. I am still trying to understand cultural and religious conflicts we used to have. It seems that the ego and some kind of suppression of Thanks for your article.

  13. faye says:

    as is normal for all religions, man interprets it and lives it as he/she sees fit and often forces it upon others. what i see that you got from your experience, as you well state, is that you are living the essence of Buddhism – service, open-bigheartedness and, in essence, a relentless pursuit of your interpretation. don't let anyone or anything stop you. just do it, man.

  14. eh, i dunno says:

    Comes off as a lot of protesting too much. And still living in reaction against childhood. So ya wanna think of yourself as one of the few new generals or the vanguard. So you wanna justify a lot of premature self-regard as the refusal to live small. Well. Listen, you actually haven't accomplished much at all here. Where is the new thinking, the good writing, the vanguard of creative solutions? Not here. This is pussy and eat my cock as spirituality. And a little green world stuff in between. All the writers on this site sound/think very much like you. This is like being caught in a dorm room. Endless adolescent self-absorption for white Colorado green spiritual types. All the commentaries like tongue baths, or you kick them out. It's a big circle jerk.
    And it will — like you — be forgotten in an instant.

  15. Steven Whitacre says:

    As a fellow Dharma Brat, spot on. Part of it, of course, is not just others but ourselves and what we do with the little tidbits from the adults that we get by accident or along the way, before we start to actually get the real teachings. I too spent a long time thinking I was supposed to repress or fight my "evil" ego before I read VCTR and Pema's books and where they talked about how to use it as fuel. The "how many bodhisattvas can dance on the head of a pin" navel-gazing intellectual BS and the negative "it's all suffering and you shouldn't try or care because you're doomed to fail" jerks, both of which used to spam sangha-talk on a regular basis, probably didn't help either.

  16. A sanctimonius and mean-spirited comment from an anonymous soapbox — oh so convenient. Who are you? Why don't use your real name? "eh, i dunno" is such a cop out, not to mention cowardly. As a writer on this site, I take offense to your bullshit comment. There is both high quality writing on Elephant and stuff that's not so high quality — and everything in between.

    Here's something from today that I think is really good:

    Here's something I wrote recently:

    You should check out more of the writing on here before making inane generalizations like this. I don't kiss anyone's ass, but I applaud Waylon and thank him for his vision of Elephant — and giving me a platform to share some of my writings.

    P.S. I am also not white and from Colorado. I live in Chicago. Though I am green and spiritual.

    Have a nice day.

  17. […] How Buddhists Messed Up My Childhood. ( […]

  18. […] I looked into the Buddhist notion of impermanence, I began to question my rigid opinions on what I believed to be right or […]

  19. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Actually, in the early days, especially in the '70's when Trungpa Rinpoche was teaching in Boulder and his young sangha was rapidly getting married and having babies, there were always children in the shrine room, crying, crawling, "escaping" and running about–and this was also true of those seminaries in the "70's. In '76 at Land O' Lakes Wisconsin seminary I have a vivid memory of 2 year old Waylon + 2 1/2 year old Mikey Halpern "escaping" from childcare, wandering down the halls, and entering the back of the main shrine room where they pretended to meditate on cushions briefly until they burst out laughing and were hauled back to childcare! It was so delightful that we all burst out laughing!