I’m a student of Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings. I’m a baby student and very new to the path. Never having attended a Buddhist teaching or even read a Buddhist book, when I was 25 I bought a ticket to teachings by the Dalai Lama in Sydney. Although raised a Catholic, I naively expected to return from the teachings a convert; but these things rarely go to plan.
There I was, at the Sydney Show Grounds hall bedecked in maroon curtains, in the same room as the Dalai Lama. While he was teaching in English, the topics were so advanced that I didn’t have a clue what was happening. It was glorious and bamboozling. I came home basically knowing nothing more about Buddhism, but I’d been there with the Dalai Lama. That had to mean something.
After I turned 30, I ended up in a project-management job at a uni. One of the job’s perks was that non-teaching staff got the same library borrowing rights as teaching staff. On my lunchtime breaks, I was drawn to the library’s Buddhist collection and came back and back. Why Buddhism? and Cave in the Snow, with their Australian flavour, got me started. Around the same time I also bought a book to teach myself to meditate, but it was tough going. I needed some help.
I rang up a Buddhist friend and said, “I want to learn to meditate. Where should I go?” She gave me a few options but said that I lived close to a Buddhist Centre that holds meditation classes. I should try there. I signed up for a residential course over the Labour Day long weekend. I felt pretty shy, not knowing anyone.
However, the weekend was very well organised and structured. We alternated between sessions for teaching, practicing meditation, and breaks for free time. The Lama had lived in Australia for over 20 years and had excellent English. He was warm, relaxed and funny. Like the Dalai Lama, his teachings were sprinkled with laughter. He taught a meditation technique called Calm Abiding, using straight forward instructions. Finally, I was meditating!
Meditation was different from what I’d imagined (or tried to teach myself): harder, more physically demanding and yet, at times airy like a pavlova. For the first time I had some understanding of the meaning and intention to bring to meditation. Receiving teachings allowed me to connect my head with my heart. And sitting with a group was powerful and rejuvenating.
Most of all I enjoyed the teaching sessions. The Lama was able to put everyday difficulties into perspective—like arguing with your mum or a colleague—and provide a useful way to approach them. What he said made sense: life is difficult but even small things, like how we think about a situation, can make a difference. Everyone wants to be happy, and there are things that we can do to help ourselves and others be happier. It was wonderful, sensible, revelatory. I felt as if I’d been on a tiring, aimless journey and finally had arrived home. This stuff was for me.
That year, at a later teaching I took Refuge, which is similar to being baptised in Christianity. It was my formal commitment to Buddhism. I came home elated.
Now, nearly five years later, the heady rush of discovery has passed. And in many ways I’m just the same. I’m still as crazy irritable and dissatisfied as the next person. I still get pissed off at people on the train to work, or yell at my husband. But what’s changed is that studying the Dharma and following Buddhist practices has given me new ways to think and feel about life. It’s as if, before I was flailing in the sea, yet now the Dharma offers me a raft and a compass. I still have to paddle, but I know others have successfully paddled before me, and others are doing so now. And when things get very difficult, still others are there to help.
My daily meditation sessions help me to breathe space between myself and what happens in life, so that—on a good day—I’m able to pause and act, rather than react on auto-pilot. My husband tells me that I’m less anxious when I meditate. (Notice, he doesn’t say I’m no longer anxious…) For me, while life can often feel like trying to sip water from a bursting fire-hose, I feel that meditation helps me to find a jug and cup.
The Dharma helps me to cope with the little events like getting stuck in traffic. But in the past year, it’s also helped me get through big events—those experiences that are too monstrous to cope with, where you merely hope you’ll survive. This year I’ve experienced persistent illness, some of which included months of excruciating pain. It was the closest I’ve come to hell. I was fortunate to have constant support and care from my family. And the Dharma helped me to survive the engulfing pain.
The Dharma also helped me with the fear. During this time I was deeply afraid of two medical procedures I required. Breasting feeding my young son had involved complications with my breast health. In those scary times when you’re lying on the medical table waiting for the doctor, the Dharma gave me someone to pray to. Before the procedures, I had also emailed my Dharma friends for help. Some of my friends were touring Tibetan sacred sites on pilgrimage—yes, they had access to email. And in those temples, they prayed for me and all mothers. My fears subsided.
While my Chinese family converted to Catholicism three generations ago, I like to imagine that my earlier ancestors were exposed to Buddhism. In that small way, my Buddhist practice also offers me a way to connect with my Chinese heritage each day.
The Dharma is about helping all beings to be happy and offers methods to make this happen. I’m still so new to Dharma, I’m learning all the time. But I’ve found a teacher who resonates for me, Lama Choedak Rinpoche, and writers with heart, like Pema Chodron and Natalie Goldberg. I feel very grateful and hope I get the opportunity to learn more.
May your own path, whatever wisdom it holds, cause to you to be well and happy.