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Joy Russell

Joy Russell
San Francisco, USA
October, 1999

Just watching myself

I’ve decided that religious interest and philosophical pursuit is a genetic thing. I’ve come from a long line of religious folk: Quaker and Baptist ministers on my father’s side, and staunch Catholics on my mother’s side. I myself was raised Catholic, including nine years of parochial school. Even my youngest daughter has inherited this “gene;” she is a self-taught Christian. In college, at UC Berkeley in the late 60’s, I encountered enough hedonism to shake my already waning interest in Catholicism. I think I was most upset by the implication of that religion that I was somehow to blame and ought to feel guilty about what and who I was! My senior year I took a world religions class which included Buddhism; but, Buddhism didn’t particularly catch my fancy at that time. I became an agnostic for many years. I missed the rituals and the sense of community, but I just couldn’t get myself to “believe”.

In the early 70’s my then-husband and I lived for a while on Guam. From there, I had the opportunity to travel twice in Japan. I was fascinated with the peace and beauty of the temples in Tokyo, Nikko, and Kyoto, and particularly by the Daibuttsu outside Yokohama. Back home in Guam, I painted a batik of the Daibuttsu. It was one of the things that my husband wanted when we divorced a couple years later. My path kept being crossed by Buddhism. In the late 70’s, there was a trip to Hong Kong and the Peoples’ Republic of China, where the outer trappings of Buddhism remained in the old pieces of art and the shrines. In the 80’s and 90’s, I came to regret not having a “faith”. I sometimes attended the local Episcopal churches because I liked the ceremony and ritual.

Then, about 3.5 years ago, I was in a phase of writing haiku for my own pleasure. I was sharing some of this poetry one evening with an old friend. The conversation turned to the Vipassana Meditation practice which he had discovered several years before. I was fascinated by the concept. In my own home, I tackled trying to meditate. I started to read about meditation and some of the basic tenets of Buddhism. I liked where I got to when I let my mind be spacious! However, my family thought I was nuts! They would interrupt my meditation and make obnoxious comments. So, I pretty much stopped outward practice.

I did continue to read. I was given a little statue of Buddha, which I treasured and carried with me. Then, about 1.5 years ago, I faced a 3.5 hour surgery on my neck to repair three cervical bones which had spurs growing into my spinal column making it more and more difficult for me to walk. I was scared witless! My friend made a copy of Jack Kornfield’s “History of Buddhist Philosophy” tapes for me. I listened to them for the three or so hours before surgery, and for many days afterwards. These wonderful dhamma talks calmed me tremendously. By time for surgery, I felt pretty much ready to accept whatever outcome, even the possibility that I could die or end up paralyzed. I took my little statue of Buddha into the operating room with me, begging a kind nurse to make sure to save it for me when I got the anesthesia, and to make sure that I had it in the recovery room. When I woke up, I felt wonderful! Ecstatic! A couple weeks later, still in a neck cast, I attended my first official meditation group: one of the many local splinter groups connected to Spirit Rock. A couple months later, I signed up for a “Basic Meditation” class by another of the Spirit Rock lay teachers.

In the months that followed, I tried to sit with two different lay teachers during each week. I enjoyed the opportunity to practice with people who were supportive and kind. I enjoyed the dhamma talks which inspired me to new ways of thinking about my life. I have had the opportunity to experience a number of lay Theravadin teachers, some of the Pureland rituals practiced at 10,000 Buddhas Monastery, sitting with a kind and funny Sri Lankan monk in South Sacramento, sitting with Ajahn Amaro’s Berkeley group, and sitting at the local Tibetan Center. I have tried to keep my mind open to all of these different ways of approaching Buddhism. I observe myself changing very slowly. I’ve come to really appreciate the opportunities to practice in the company of a monastic. I’ve come to appreciate the local Tibetan Center, even though I don’t care very much for that lineage, because it is close by and has times that are convenient for me to be away from the people in my household who continue to make fun of my practice.

I love the fact that the simple truths of Buddhism ring true in all of my life! There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t say to my Weight Watchers members, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”, (Silvia Boornstein). I always get a laugh because it is SO true! The truth is that there is pain. There is death. But, there also is a path for us to learn not to suffer from these realities! Thank you, all my friends in dhamma! Thank you for your love and support, and for being the wonderful international sangha/parisa that you are! May we all be well, happy, and peaceful.