Melvin joined the Kadampa Meditation Center Colorado in early 2017, after stumbling across an ad to live in our shared house in Capitol Hill. A self-described seeker who has spent decades questioning and exploring his own spirituality through Buddhist meditation and other faiths, Melvin is now retired from a long career in telecommunications and is a resident and regular member of our community.
We sat down with him recently, and he told us how he found his own spiritual path and what he’s learned along the way. Excerpts from our conversation below:
What was your first experience with Buddhism and meditation?
Back when I was 15 years old in high school in Virginia Beach, I ran across this book, by Herman Hesse, titled Siddhartha. I read it, and it’s always stuck with me. I didn’t know that it was related to Buddhism, but that was my first contact with Dharma.
Meditation came a lot later. I was in my thirties. I was out of school. I already graduated from college and moved to Atlanta. That is when I experienced that there were a lot of other people not like me. I was used to being amongst my family, amongst my neighborhood, and then I went to school in Baltimore and was amongst more people who looked like me, acted like me, had similar experiences. I didn’t really understand the international world until I got to Atlanta and saw a lot of different people. I just wondered why they were here in the United States.
I got especially curious about the Vietnamese and wondered why they were here, when a war was just fought. I lived through that war; several of my friends did not come back from Vietnam. I was terribly interested in what the Vietnamese thought about people like me, an American. And I anticipated that they must be angry that Americans were there tearing their country up. Did they now have to come over here because we ruined their country? That’s how I thought about it.
So, I had a question. I needed to know. So, I sought out to find out, to meet Vietnamese people and talk to them. I read about them and learned that they were Buddhist, which is my first real understanding or question about Buddhism, the religion.
Had you always been a spiritual person?
I’ve always been spiritual, I think. When I was a teenager, I carried around the King James version of the Bible. I went to different denominations of churches searching for something that would hit me, something that would make sense to me, because being raised as a Presbyterian was not getting it. They weren’t answering my questions, and I was always the person who kept asking questions. I wouldn’t stop asking questions. And each answer I would get, I would have two more questions. And I learned quickly that people didn’t like that. I met a lot of people that would just push me away; they wanted me to go somewhere and sit down and just have faith.
My grandma Yarn used to tell me I was the most curious little fella. I was always asking questions all the time, and people would just shoo me away. She thought it was cute.
I guess I was always one to ask questions. I was skeptical, perhaps a little cynical. I was on a search and seek even then.
What other faiths were meaningful in your life?
In the 60s, Islam became interesting to me, when one of the people I studied, someone I looked up to, Malcolm Little, better known as Malcolm X, was prominent. He talked about how to cleanse oneself, how to be a good person and still stand up for what is rightfully your own. So, when he passed away when I was in high school, I still followed Islam and the Black Muslim movement in the 1960s. After that I also followed the Black Panthers’ philosophy of self-defense. I was trying to reconcile those two philosophies, because they were opposites in how they would attain freedom and liberation.
Back then, liberation for me meant freedom from oppression, external oppression, not in the mind. And I understood that. I came from the Jim Crow era and everyone I knew, all my relatives, were in the South, so we had to go back to visit. I ran into experiences that kept reminding me that something is not quite right and that the way people treated me was not warranted.
After Martin Luther King, Jr passed away, there were no more leaders, no more people I could listen to. So I started reading self-help books—Denis Waitley, Leo Buscaglia, and others. That’s when I realized what I was looking for was within—I thought I was a mystic. I was studying all these self-help ideas about what would help me internally. Being an introvert, I understood I got my energy from within, so I always felt that way anyway.
Were there any Buddhists who helped you along the way?
One Christmas, when I was working at a Macy’s department store putting in computers, this beautiful, teeny lady, all dressed up with an emerald dress and long black hair, walked up to me and asked me which tie should she buy for her boss. Without thinking why she was asking me, I just said, “The red one. He’ll like the red one.” And I don’t remember what happened then—it’s been so long ago, 30 years—but we became friends, partly because I pushed the idea. I learned that she was Vietnamese, and here was my opportunity to find out more. We’ve now been friends for 30 years, and after moving around the country, we now both live in Colorado. I went to Vietnam with her last October. I traveled with her and her family, and a lot of the questions I had back when I was in my 30s in Atlanta were answered. It’s taken a while.
I discovered Buddhism when I was reading about Vietnamese people. I discovered the Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh, and, well, I bought and read every book I could find. A little over a year ago, I decided I wanted to go to Plum Village, his meditation center in France. I thought, I’m about to retire, maybe now is the time to reduce my rent, liquidate everything and go to Plum Village—to go and become a monk.
And that intention brought you to Kadampa?
The real truth is that I stumbled upon it. I was seeking better, cheaper housing here in Colorado, to save money for this move. And I saw an ad that there was availability for a room that matched the price I wanted. I was skeptical about moving in with a bunch of people. Mostly I’ve lived alone everywhere I’ve gone, and I’ve owned my own house. I pushed the idea away at first, but then I felt like I’d try it.
They seemed to take me on. They liked me. It was a year in February, and it’s truly been a pleasant and wholesome experience.
What did it feel like to get rid of all your belongings?
I’ve accumulated a great deal over the last 20 to 30 years. Moving from one city to the next, I always left in storage somewhere the stuff I didn’t want to carry. I moved from a six-bedroom house in Atlanta to New Orleans in a three-bedroom apartment. Then, I moved to a two-bedroom apartment. Then I moved to Denver in a one-bedroom apartment, so I was discarding things that I didn’t need for a long time. When I was getting ready to move into the Kadampa house, I thought, wow, now I’m going to one room. All this stuff that I had lay wasted behind me. I thought, next thing I’ll be living out of a shoe box!
I found out that I never needed all this stuff. I didn’t need two cars. I didn’t need all the suitcases. I didn’t need all the furniture for every room. I did hold on to my hard work—all that I didn’t lose—but furniture and all that, I didn’t need. Most has been lost, given away, left behind.
You’ve really changed a lot in your life. Did meditation help?
I think so. Understanding meditation helped. I’ve always practiced mindful meditation according to how Thich Nhat Hanh was teaching it. That was my meditation practice: solitary, alone.
So you had never meditated with a community before?
No. Coming to Kadampa was the first time I’ve practiced Sangha. I understood Sangha to be everyone and anyone I came in contact with. The world was my Sangha.
I have a college friend that graduated from medical school, and I think the night she graduated in 1992, I asked her for her first prescription. She said, “Practice doing three good deeds anonymously each day.” So, I decided to do that and have been doing that ever since. I didn’t know that that was part of practicing bodhichitta or showing compassion. I was just doing that because my friend gave me that as a prescription.
So, something has worked. I think I was on the path just because of the people that I was surrounded by. As I look back now and see where Buddha was working to guide me and keep me on the path; I have no doubts. Certain people touched me and guided me without telling me who they were. They were just kind to me.
How has Kadampa changed your practice?
Definitely for the better. As I said before, the world and everyone in it was my Sangha, so I was not focused. I took the bodhisattva vow: I go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. But the Sangha to me was anyone, all human beings. And I didn’t necessarily include all living beings; I thought it was just human beings. So, now I’m more focused on what that means, to go for refuge at Sangha and to wish happiness for all living, sentient beings.
How do you think Buddhism and meditation can contribute to peace?
Oh my gosh. Well, there’s no other way to get there. It’s as if each of us has a part to play in world peace, and only each of us can do it. It’s not like one person can say, “Zap! Make everyone peaceful!” And yet, each one of us has the power to make ourselves peaceful. If each one of us did that, we’d have a peaceful world. It’s a no brainer. But meditation is a way—Buddhism is a way—to actually change the world, by changing our mind, how we think about the world. And revealingly, if I change how I think about the world, then—voilà—the world actually changes. If I change how I look at it, I see it. It adds credence to all the sages I’ve heard over the years, who said things like, “as a man thinketh…” and showed the importance of imagination in creating our world. That’s what everybody has been saying, but a step further in actually doing that is through meditation.
What has your practice over the last year or so helped you realize?
I’m always amazed that my mind is creating all of this. It has to come home—to be more certain to me—to be the answer. I believe the Dharma is what keeps me steady, but I won’t be able to figure it out by asking somebody else. The key to understanding is my own meditation. If I don’t think it will work, and then I don’t do it because I don’t think it will work, it won’t work. But when I do it, when I read the Dharma, and I recall that I have to try to understand it and that I have to make an effort, then something changes. I cannot put my finger on it just yet, but I realize that I have to do the work.
The more I read, the more I study, I understand that there’s really not anything else to do. All the rest of the things that I did most of my life were secondary to studying the Dharma. To understand the Dharma and what Buddha found out, and to follow the path and gain realizations seem to be so much more important.
I understand now that I’m in this life and have this human body, but I don’t have long. I could just go back to partying in the streets and doing all the stuff that feels good for a little time until something bad happens, and then I work it out and start over. I haven’t had any peace going through that cycle over and over again. It seems that I need to try something different.
Do you still want to go to Plum Village?
One other thing I understand now is that it is not about where I am physically. I could be anywhere in a second. I’ve found myself here for a reason; I don’t ask why anymore. I just deal day by day, moment by moment, and I’m not displeased. Being in the house, it’s just a different situation. I don’t miss seeing Bill Maher on TV every Friday night or any the other shows I like to watch. I used to say I missed my music, but I’ve heard it over and over again for the last 30 years. I don’t really need to hear it. There are so many things that I’ve given up. It’s like they don’t exist anymore; they’re no longer important.
What advice would you offer for someone who is just starting their own meditation practice?
It’s not about doing more or doing it at the same time every day. It’s about enjoying the meditation, whenever you’re doing it. Before I knew about this center, it was December of last year, I resolved to sit down at the same time every morning. My life was all upside down—I didn’t know what to do, whether to retire or whether to take another job—so I decided to get steady in my meditation, my mindfulness. I wanted to just sit down and see if I could do it, to pay attention to my breath. And I was doing it alone, without any support.
I beat myself up. I’d fall asleep. Or I’d try to go for 30 minutes, and there would be all kinds of obstacles. But I didn’t call them obstacles; I just beat myself up. I thought I was the obstacle. And it turns out, I’m not the obstacle. I was the one who was making the effort. The obstacles to my meditation are my delusions. Our meditation is actually a virtuous act, and if we meditate for a minute, we receive merit. If we meditate for a second, we receive merit.
It takes an effort to get merit, but it doesn’t take anything at all to wash it away or for an obstacle to come. Bad things happen to us without us ever knowing or thinking about it, but it takes an effort to get good things to happen. We have to really practice good things for good things to occur. We don’t have to do anything for something bad to happen. It catches us off guard and we don’t know what to do. We get confused. We get angry so quickly at something that happens. It’s because we’re not controlling our mind, and we’re not even making an effort to get one minute of meditation.
Now, I can’t tax myself about doing it a certain time every day. I can try, but if I don’t make it, then, I’ll simply start a little later or a little earlier. Or maybe I can only do five minutes or 10 minutes. The important thing for me is that within any 24 hour period, I have to do it at least once. It doesn’t have to be long. I just sit and breathe—maybe only five breaths—and I am creating good in the world.