A memoir by Jose Shinzan Palma
Translated from the Spanish by Bopkyong Lisa Galicia. Reprinted from Spring Wind, a publication Buddhist Cultural Forum, Winter 2005 issue, pages 30-33.
The first time I heard the word “Buddha,” the figure of a bald man with a big belly and a smiling face came to mind as did superstition and magic. In Mexico there is a saying “Rub the Buddha’s belly for good luck.” Many people have a Buddha statue surrounded by charms in their businesses for good fortune. I never imagined that Buddhism was a religion.
After friends and I were in a car accident, I realized how important it was to be alive. I became more responsible for myself and began searching for a spiritual path. I was twenty years old. I practiced yoga from a book for a while and from there emerged an interest in meditation. A friend taught me Zen meditation. I didn’t give it much consideration because meditation seemed like resolving an intellectual problem. My friend used words that I didn’t understand like Buddha, bodhisattva, and Bodhidharma. Coming from the Catholic faith, I rejected these words since they seemed esoteric.
At that time, I had a girlfriend who was going through some problems. I wanted to help her and I bought a book to do so. In reading the book, however, I realized that it wasn’t for her but for me. The author said that the only way to find happiness is through prayer or Zen meditation. I thought, “I’m already familiar with prayer, but what about Zen meditation?” I began investigating Zen. I was in college and found the book Three Pillars of Zen at the university library. I read it and followed the instructions to practice meditation. One day, while walking through the university gardens, I came upon a Zen meditation poster announcing Samu Sunim’s visit in December 1996. My life at that time was a disaster. I had broken up with my girlfriend, my grades were bad, and I had no money and no job. My dilemma was whether to continue studying geology or get a full-time job. I had final exams but didn’t take them in order to attend all of Sunim’s talks and workshops, hoping to find an answer for my life.
A friend and I went to Sunim’s meditation workshop. We arrived late. We were in a hurry and entered the room without removing our shoes. Sunim shouted from the front of the room “No shoes!” Toan approached and asked us to remove our shoes. We took them off and bolted in. Toan called to us again and showed us how to accommodate our shoes and socks in an orderly way. He said, “With just a bit of attention, you can save yourselves a lot of suffering in your lives.” At the workshop there was an altar with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This struck me as odd. I figured that the teacher must favor the Virgin of Guadalupe. Years later I learned that the facility had been rented the day before for the anniversary of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance and that there wasn’t enough time to dismantle the altar before the workshop.
It was a year later in December 1997 that I attended my first five-day Yongmaeng Chongjin retreat. On the second day of the retreat, I was thinking that the practice just wasn’t for me, that it was very hard, required much discipline, and that it would be better if I returned to the Catholic Church. But after the retreat, I took the precepts and eventually became a Dharma Student in January 1998. Sunim invited me for training in the Chicago temple. I attempted to travel to Chicago in December 1999, but the United States Embassy refused my request for a visa since my economic situation was unstable. At that time, I worked as a restaurant manager. The next year, I started a new job in maintenance at a boxing gym in order to have more time for practice and for attending sangha services. The pay was very poor, but I was glad to have time for my practice.
A friend got a job in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. He worked for the government and he needed people whom he could trust, so he invited me to work with him. I discussed the offer and my seminary training with Toan. I saw the job as an opportunity to obtain my visa and save money to pay off my debts. Toan advised me not to go. He said it would be challenging to keep up my seminary training without the support of the sangha and with the many distractions of the Ciudad Juárez, a city full of violence and drug trafficking. I didn’t have an alternative but to accept my friend’s offer because I needed a visa and the money. So, in Feburary 2000, I went to live on the border.
I had been working for Customs for almost two years. I had gotten involved in a very active social life full of vices. I was earning a lot of money. One could say that I had every comfort, but I was unhappy. I lacked the happiness that I had known in Mexico City where I had menial, poorly paid jobs, but the time to do my practice. In Ciudad Juárez, I lost all connection with the sangha and my practice.
I obtained my visa for the United States, and I promised myself that for my first vacation during Holy Week, I would go to the Chicago temple. When my vacation arrived, I called Chicago. I didn’t know how to speak English, but I wanted to tell Sunim that I wanted to come to Chicago and that I had my visa. Fortunately, Sunim recognized my voice and the only thing he told me was to speak with Toan. It was impossible to speak with Sunim because I didn’t know English. When I spoke with Toan, he advised me to wait for the summer retreat in Chicago. He suggested that I attend the Mexico City retreat during Holy Week instead. My dream of going to Chicago evaporated again. I attended the retreat with Toan in Mexico City. The retreat was one of the most difficult that I’ve experienced since I had not practiced for a year. My whole life in Ciudad Juárez flooded my mind, but by the end of the retreat, I had rediscovered my practice. Yet after a month, I lost my regular practice again and returned to my old habits.
I got drunk one day after a gathering with my colleagues from work and when I woke up, I was at home in a terrible state. I realized that I had drive my car home, but I didn’t remember how I got there. I had lost my cell phone and my wallet was empty. I looked in the mirror and I was disgusted. That’s when I woke up and decided to change my lifestyle. I thought, “If I continue like this, I will kill myself one day. This lifestyle isn’t taking me anywhere. I took this job in order to obtain my visa. Now I have one, so it is time to leave this job.”
Summer was coming and I knew there was going to be a retreat, but now I had no vacation time. I had to negotiate with my boss for a week of vacation before I had earned it. There was a special task that consisted of organizing the archive of Customs permits. It was a serious, tedious, and time consuming job that nobody wanted since the building housing the archive was abandoned and out of the operations area-that is, where there were no opportunities to receive bribes. So I made a deal with my boss that I would organize the archive in return for a week of vacation. This job took me months to complete, but it was good practice since I couldn’t take pay-offs there.
In summer 2001, I arrived in Chicago with the aim of renewing myself spiritually. Sunim surprised me with the invitation to resume training, and I was accepted as a Dharma student again. Sunim told me: “Don’t put off what is good. Always do it even if you’re not sure. Since it is good, you won’t be harmed. But always postpone what is bad.”
Ever since I met Sunim the first time, I had the desire to participate in Zen training at a temple. For me it was a dream to live in a temple with a Zen master. When Sunim invited me the first time, I promised myself that I would do everything necessary to train. After the retreat in Chicago, I realized that I enjoyed Dharma practice more than anything else.
I returned to Mexico to resign from my job even though my colleagues and my family did not accept the decision I was making. At times, people are caught up by appearances. Every one thought that it was better to continue working and accumulating wealth than pursue spiritual training, but nothing had made me happier and more peaceful than Dharma practice. Doing retreats and helping the sangha could help me keep my mind at peace and live a happier life. So I had another opportunity to turn my life toward the Dharma.
Living at the temple is different than attending a retreat, which is a short but very intensive period. Temple life is a constant practice, not so intense, but constant like a river current that flows yet always seems the same. My challenge was finding the Dharma while doing the most simple and routine things. I tried to keep my mind in the here and now. Chanting practice was the antidote that reduced my distractions-my thoughts about the future and the past. At times I became disillusioned because I made mistakes, but there was nothing for me to do but try again anew. Every day was a new day. Every day there was something I had to learn about myself. I learned the discipline of consistency. The training in Chicago went beyond that ten weeks. I realized that it was just the beginning.
I returned to Mexico and broke up with my girlfriend. It was painful, but I had to do it. “Something” told me I had to leave. I didn’t know anything about my future, only that I would be going to the Toronto temple to continue my training. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen and how it was going to transform my life. Before departing from Mexico, I visited some of my best friends who had just had their first child. I was still thinking about my girlfriend. When I was with my friends, I saw the image of a family: husband, wife, son. They were happy with their life and their new baby. This image made me think, “I could have had this,” but I also thought of a verse from the Dhammapada-renounce a small happiness in view of the great happiness. I spent the night with my friends and at dawn the baby began to cry. I awoke and realized the Buddha’s first noble truth that life is suffering. The baby was just days old and was suffering. That cry inspired me to reaffirm my decision to follow the Dharma.
In February 2002, I arrived in Toronoto with Sunim. Everything was new to me. I was alone with Sunim. I always had to be alert and accommodating. Shortly after arriving, the temple moved to a new location. Since I didn’t understand English, I had to guess what was happening. It was a great practice of attention and intuition.
The move was a great experience for me as the new building was transformed to function as a temple. There was much work to be done; above all, cleaning. Each small and simple task completed was an achievement and progress could be seen daily. Every day I had to do my practice. I was the only resident and, at times, it was difficult to get out of bed in the morning. I wanted to continue sleeping and not to do my practice. I thought, “I’m alone, no one is going to know,” but such dishonest thinking with myself made me get out of bed. I also said to myself, “I’ve left too many things behind, I’ve sacrificed too much to continue being the same and to continue cultivating the same old habits. I might as well return to Mexico. I came here to change, to be better, not to be the same.” With this I got up and did my practice, unconcerned with the conditions in which I found myself. One of the greatest satisfactions in my life is to wake, go outside to run, and to see the parking lot and the pines covered with snow in the winter.
Now my life is completely dedicated to the Dharma. My training will never cease for I am always cultivating beginner’s mind, each day fresh and new. We are constantly renovating the temple. It is beautiful to see the sangha working together with one goal, leaving behind individual interest for the sake of all beings.