October 24, 2014
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Mr. Adventure: Seeking the Clean and Pure Life

In search of inner peace at a Buddhist meditation center, our writer finds that daily offerings—and vacuuming—are part of the process.

Gary Hovland

Life is like an extension cord.

How, you ask? That’s unclear. But as I stand here, vacuuming in front of a 9-foot-tall golden Buddha at an out-of-town meditation center, I’m feeling pretty confident that that’s the message I should be taking away from this.

As many of you know, I’m on a constant search for enlightenment. From the mountains of Peru to backstage at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, I’ve searched for the meaning of life in some of the darkest, most remote places imaginable. (I’ve interviewed the Kardashians, for God’s sake.) But few things help clear the head in preparation for a spiritual awakening like vacuuming. And Buddhas have surprisingly messy carpets.

I was told by an unemployed Georgian kayaking through the Everglades that in order to find inner peace—and reconnect with myself on a cellular level—I should head to the Kadampa Meditation Center Florida (KMCF) in Sarasota. And having never been steered wrong by an unemployed Georgian kayaking through the Everglades before, I decided to book some time at Florida’s largest Kadampa meditation center.

I know what you’re saying to yourself right now: “Size doesn’t really matter.” But in this instance, the truth is you want a big one (otherwise you can’t spend the night).

The unemployed Georgian told me he stayed there a month. He said there were offerings and monks and a sense of spirituality and community that he hadn’t felt since his stoner days back in college. And while that description doesn’t seem to appear on any of their marketing material, Buddhism itself always seemed like such an optimistic line of thought. Karma, reincarnation and Dharma & Greg are all noteworthy pursuits on their own, but together, wow!

KMCF offers classes, prayers, meditations and workshops on the Buddhist lifestyle and, best of all, they really do have rooms for rent: singles, doubles and the friend-making dormitory replete with bunk beds. So I made my reservation (actually I had some reservations earlier) and signed up for a workshop entitled “A Daily Practice.” It was going to explain just what Buddhists do all day, covering everything from “Preparing for Meditation” to “How To Set Up a Shrine” to “Lunch” and “Malas & Mantras” (whatever those are). Best of all, there would be an actual monk handling things. Frankly, I just wanted to know what anybody does all day.

It should be noted here (or anywhere else the legal team suggests) that I know nothing about Buddhism per se. I thought I did. I’ve certainly seen my share of Richard Gere movies.

Located majestically next door to a Popeye’s Chicken (“Family Meal Deal just $20.99!”) and across the street from a Hess gas station, the KMCF oasis could be mistaken for a title insurance company if not for the golden lotus blossoms placed at its rooftop’s four corners. But once inside I was quickly welcomed and milled about with the other dozen or so karma-seekers in the center’s lobby/bookstore/café area. There were miniature Buddhas for sale, books on Buddhism, T-shirts featuring Buddhist sayings and gum.

The people hanging out in the lobby all seemed normal enough. But no one was in robes. While enlightenment is all well and good, the truth is I’m a big fan of robes. I assumed we’d all get to wear them around the center, occasionally bang a gong and kinda just get it. “It” being enlightenment. The lack of robes was the first lesson in karma. It looks like only the monks get to wear robes. The other lesson is that if you sign up to stay at the center they request that you offer to help with chores around the place. It turns out that giving back is big with the Buddhist set.

The 16 people attending the class were completely nondescript save one woman who was tall, tan and enhanced by all manner of add-ons, the least of which were the three diamond studs mounted in her chest. She was an artist and was fascinating. Well, I assume she was fascinating. She was foreign-born and virtually undecipherable, which is sad, because we somehow carried on a conversation for 15 minutes. Still, her enthusiasm for the books prominently featuring the word “Tantric” on their covers could not be contained.

As for the center itself, it’s run by a group of charming young Buddhists, none of whom appear Asian and all of whom seem like they were prominent members of their high school audio/visual departments. Geeky and wholesome, they seem to be the kind of young adults you’d like your children to become—right up to the moment they tell you they’re becoming Buddhists and moving into a meditation center.

The same goes for the resident monk. Kelsang Donchod is a stout, good-natured fellow with horn-rimmed glasses and a robe that looks like a maroon and gold duvet from Ikea. He’s also a “32-year-old dude from New Jersey.”

He opened with a song that didn’t rhyme or have any discernible melody and when I looked for it on iTunes I came up empty. Nevertheless, it turns out that there’s a lot to being a practicing Buddhist. First, you need a shrine in your home. And proving that enlightenment is not a size queen, the monk was quick to add, “Don’t get hung up on size.” It doesn’t need to be anything fancy; just a tiny Buddha will suffice.

One of the reasons you need a shrine is that you must make a daily offering to Buddha, whom Donchod describes as a coach. And shrine kits, available in the lobby, come complete with seven small glass bowls, which you must fill each day. That’s your offering.

“I thought it was crazy, too, when I started,” said Donchod, who turns out to be well-versed in everything from mixed tapes to Emirates Airlines. “But it turns out you aren’t giving Buddha a drink. He isn’t thirsty. The daily act of pouring water into the bowls is practice on how to give. It conditions you to give and to make it a part of your life. It’s really quite beautiful.”

As he’s saying this, sitting in front of a 9-foot tall statue of Buddha, I notice there are very large bowls of water on a ledge, at the foot of the statues. (There were a lot of Buddhas in that room.) All I wanted to do was place one goldfish in each bowl. That seemed like a reasonable offering. But then I noticed bottles of wine, fresh flowers and chocolates also at the feet of the Buddhas—as though they were all on first dates. (That may have been explained, but I probably zoned out.)

When the class wrapped up, I asked what job I could do as my resident offering. It seemed the kitchen had already been cleaned and two other guests were chainsawing a dead tree in the parking lot, so could I vacuum the shockingly large sanctuary we were just in?

I was directed to the vacuum and the extension cord and left to it as all the other attendees gravitated to the cafe.

“Wow, we’ve got you working already?” Donchod asked as he wandered to his quarters.

“It’s all about giving back … plus, there’s a lot of rice on this floor,” I said, looking for the outlet. Seriously? Where are the outlets?

Yeah, life really is like an extension cord. Sometimes you need to be plugged in far from where you are at that moment. And you need that power to clean up your stuff. And life, like a plush-carpeted sanctuary, can sometimes be covered in bits of rice.

Actually, now that I think of it, life might be like a vacuum.

 

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