by Chad Harder
Very little about Buddhism is universal. There are as many different
paths of Buddhism as there are branches of Christianity,
each with its own take on what is true. For example, some practitioners
of Vipassanna don't consider what they practice a religion,
or even call themselves Buddhists.
Perry doesn’t look 63 years old.
the man barely looks a day over 50, and only because of his
gray-white hair. Maybe it’s the brightness behind his
blue eyes or his easy, frequent smile, but he fills the room
with an air of youthfulness.
is one of a growing number of people in the Missoula, Montana
area who practices a form of Buddhism. While western stereotypes
often portray Buddhists as old people with shaved heads and
orange robes, many local people with very conventional upbringings
have found truth in the teachings of the Buddha and apply them
every day to their personal—and professional—lives.
Perry has been practicing
Vipassanna meditation for 10 years, a nonsectarian form of meditation
that concerns itself not with faith, worship or converting others,
but with removing suffering from people's life.
Buddha said, "Don't believe me, don't believe anybody,
don't accept anything based on tradition. Don't believe anything
based on the fact that your community believes this or your
country believes this or the people that you are around believe
this,"" says Perry. "What the Buddha taught is
that there is suffering, and that [meditation] is a way out
a sense, Perry helps people find their way out of suffering
every day. He is a professional mediator in the Bitterroot Valley,
settling domestic disputes and custody battles. Mediators differ
from lawyers and judges in that they attempt to settle problems
out of court, and their decisions are non-binding. Perry’s
job is to get both parties to agree to the compromise. Although
Perry went to law school and practiced law for 17 years, he
eventually grew disenchanted with the profession.
practice of law is based on finding different ways to describe
the same thing, either to put a rose tint on it or a black tint
on it," he says. "You're trying to restate reality
for a court or a jury."
Perry, truth and honesty are essential to both his life and
his profession. In fact, he finds that most of his work involves
finding a way through other people's misunderstanding and misinterpretation
of the truth. In his experience, a common thread runs through
all human conflicts: The stated cause of the controversy is
rarely what's really going on.
considers himself a practitioner of dharma, the teachings of
the Buddha. Dharma is also a Sanscrit word meaning "truth,"
which forms the foundation of his profession. The mediator often
has to work through a couple's resentments and petty differences
before he can address the problems at hand. Generally, when
his clients' unfinished business is taken care of, the problem
usually takes care of itself.
dharma has helped me to see things the way they are," he
says. "The whole drift of how I practice mediation is to
try to really understand what is going on. Then I can bring
some effectiveness to [my clients] to help get beyond that."
isn't surprised that Buddhism has found a strong following in
the Missoula, Montana area, which reminds him of San Francisco,
California circa 1967, where he lived and practiced law for
years. He says the physical setting of western Montana is conducive
to spiritual rather than materialistic pursuits.
are enough people here who have denounced the American Dream
as life's end-all and be-all," he says. "That seems
to have created an energy here that is particularly interested
in this kind of spirituality."
has had other practical benefits for Perry as well. He comes
from a family of alcoholics, himself included. He started meditating
in January of 1987, and stopped drinking three months later.
It was only years later that he made a connection between the
of what happens when you meditate is that painful emotions and
desires become less frequent visitors," he says. "You
generally become more and more content with the way things are."
1989, Perry picked up a book on Vipassanna meditation and was
immediately attracted to it, he says. Vipassanna, which literally
means "seeing things the way they are," has allowed
Perry to approach his work without preconceived notions,
a neutrality that is vital to his profession.
carried with it the unmistakable ring of truth," Perry
pursuit of truth is one of the few things that the different
branches of Buddhism have in common. While most Buddhists follow
five basic precepts "avoid taking life, take only what
is given, avoid lies and hurtful language, refrain from sexual
misconduct, and avoid intoxicants" these ideas are by no
fact, very little about Buddhism is universal. There are as
many different paths of Buddhism as there are branches of Christianity,
each with its own take on what is true. Some practitioners of
Vipassanna, Perry included, don't consider what they practice
a religion, or even call themselves Buddhists.
what is universal? Buddhism teaches that life's natural state
is suffering, and that the cause of all suffering is desire.
People constantly desire what they don't have, be it a big house
or a new car. Buddhism teaches that no matter how often someone's
desires are fulfilled, the person will never have lasting satisfaction
while they continue to desire.
is also a highly inclusive religion, which means that a person
can practice it and still be a Christian, for example, without
the two religions conflicting with one another. In fact, some
Buddhists see a great deal of harmony between Christianity and
you lay the three years teachings of Jesus Christ alongside
the 45 years of teachings of the Buddha, they really said the
same thing," says Deanna Sheriff, director of Osel Shen
Phen Ling, (OSPL) a local Tibetan Buddhist center. "Be
good and kind, try to help others. Be happy and you'll make
kind of acceptance is an everyday part of life for Leslie McCormick,
a volunteer coordinator at Partners in Home Care Hospice. Her
job is to pair volunteers with people with terminal diseases
and try to make the patient's final months as happy and comfortable
27, has been practicing Buddhism with the Rocky Mountain Buddhist
Order for the last four years. She is an energetic, friendly
woman who listens intently before answering questions. She talks
quickly, making sweeping gestures with her hands to illustrate
understood is important to McCormick, and she makes a point
of explaining and re-explaining anything that may be vague or
unclear. She resists lingo and labels, saying that people who
overuse them either aren't very creative or don't know what
they're talking about.
was raised Catholic, but says that as she grew older, the religion
became less and less relevant to her life.
was just becoming clearer and clearer to me that it was just
not reaching a depth in me, that I was not clicking with people
on a level I wanted to," she says. "Things were just
feeling less and less synchronized."
McCormick began to go to church less often as she grew older,
she was not trying to divorce spirituality from her life. Actually,
being raised Catholic gave her a strong desire to seek out a
belief system that she could believe in.
made the most sense to her because it brought with it a sense
of personal responsibility. In Buddhism, McCormick explains,
there is no parental god-figure looking down upon you, punishing
you if you do wrong and praising you if you do right. Each person
is responsible for making decisions in his or her own life.
In addition, Buddhists aren't waiting around on this earth to
go to heaven, but are constantly working toward a goal.
of waiting for the end to find out what happens to us, moment
by moment we look at our mental states and pay attention to
the consequences in our lives and other people's lives,"
getting her degree in creative writing at the University of
Montana, McCormick looked for a job where she could help people
and seek a better understanding of Buddhism. Working at the
hospice, she says, does both.
it might seem that working with the dying for long periods of
time "especially those who die young" would shake
a person's religious beliefs, McCormick finds that her work
actually strengthens her beliefs. Buddhism teaches that all
life is transient, that nothing stays the same for long. By
working with people in their final days, McCormick confronts
this reality every day.
all know intellectually that we are going to die, but most of
us don't know it on a deep level," she says. "My work
takes what I know intellectually and helps me to understand
also teaches that none of us is substantially different from
any other being, but that our ego prevents us from seeing this.
In her work, McCormick has to deal with people letting go, not
only of their egos, but of the very things that once defined
them. For instance, a man who used to walk every day of his
life might now be confined to a wheelchair; an athletic father
might not be able to play ball with his son anymore. This knowledge
that, in death, we must all let go of how we lived, has helped
McCormick understand her own ego.
all want assurance from the world around us that we are real,
that we have our own identities," she says. "But this
is essentially not the case. What I am is not any kind of essential
thing, but is defined by my environment."
More importantly, says
McCormick, her work keeps her thinking and living in the present.
She can't worry too far in advance, because her patients simply
don't have that luxury. Being forced to live in the moment reminds
her of how precious life is.
work takes you down to the most real level of human interaction,"
she says. "You see so much amazing love and change and
suffering that it allows you to put your life in perspective."