“I started having anxiety problems as a teenager. I tried medication and it made me a crazy person, so I got off the medication. I was looking for ways to deal with my anxiety. It was crippling, I couldn’t be around people at all. And then I learned about meditation,” replied Daniel Scharpenburg when I asked how he found Buddhism.
Daniel speaks deliberately. As I listen back to the recording of our interview, I’m surprised to find it’s only a little over thirty minutes and about a third of it is silence. There are long pauses between my questions and his answers, they are intentional and verging on awkward. And yet, they speak volumes.
He grew up with Christian parents, but he admits they weren’t particularly devout. He left the faith purely out of boredom and he wasn’t religious at all when he found meditation at the age of 22. “I started trying it, and I didn’t really know anything about it, but I found that it was working. So, I started reading numerous books about meditation and trying to learn more about it. Ultimately I learned about Buddhism and I’ve never looked back, I guess.”
I’m curious, was it not enough to meditate? Why bring Buddhism into it? He pauses for what seems like an eternity. “I guess I wanted context. I wanted history and stories about meditation,” he says. He tells me his practice is not based on ritual and it’s not particularly devotional. He explains that while he can learn a lot by sitting on the cushion, there is so much to learn off it, too.
The image of a person sitting alone on a mountain top or sandy beach, cross-legged, hands resting on knees and eyes closed; that’s what we tend to associate with meditation. But for Daniel, having a meditation community was essential. “I was the only Buddhist I knew and I was alone and I wanted to meet great people,” he tells me. He wasn’t sure at first that the Rime Center would be the place for him, being that it is a Vajrayana center which to him meant chanting, bowing and praying, and he wasn’t interested in that.
Once he started attending, he realized it was not as ritualistic as he had thought and he stuck around. “We have lots of good visiting teachers that come through and I really value that because they come from all sorts of Buddhist traditions. I’ve met all sorts of people that I could never have met on my own,” he says.
But he didn’t just stick around, he soon became an essential part of the Rime Center’s community. For a few years now, Daniel has been in charge of the center’s Dharma School. Children ages four and up gather in the upper room of the Center every Sunday morning while their parents congregate in the shrine room below. This is where our conversation is taking place, a large, sun-bathed room with exposed brick walls and hardwood floors. In just under an hour, children (including his daughter and son) will start filing in.
Daniel never set out to work with children. “It kind of happened to me,” he explains. He became interested in the program only after his kids had been participating in it. Soon enough, the person in charge moved on and a friend of Daniel’s assumed responsibility of the program. That’s when he started helping out and eventually that friend moved on as well. “Why do I still do it? I guess I could just quit,” he says. And then, after a pause, he continues, “As I said, I suffer from anxiety and I see some of those tendencies in my daughter so I want her to have a meditation practice if she wants to use it…I want her to have better tools than I had.”
Personally, I can’t imagine anything more anxiety-inducing than being responsible for a group of children. You’d have to pay me a lot of money to do this and he does it as a volunteer, week after week. He laughs when I ask how he does it.
“I have to be really patient. I tell them not to run and they run. I have to exercise patience and it’s good for me. It is at times overwhelming,” he says, as calmly as a sleeping child. His children enjoy it, and that’s his main reward. He admits that sometimes he enjoys it, too. “It’s a good feeling to know I’m doing something that benefits the community. Lots of volunteers at the Rime Center do harder things than this.”
When Daniel mentions that bringing his children to Dharma School gives his spouse a morning off, I ask whether she herself attends. I learn she’s not a Buddhist. “She knows Buddhism helps me, and she is supportive,” he says. I press a bit further, I want to hear something about the trials and tribulations of a mixed-faith family; surely there are many, I think. Another long pause, and then he says, “The thing about Buddhist values is that there’s not a lot to complain about. It’s compassion, concentration, being kind to others and loving each other. So, she’s pretty comfortable. Ultimately if the children want to be Buddhists when they grow up, that’ll be up to them.”
When it comes to Buddhism, there are those who assert that it is a religion and those who contend it is not. Daniel isn’t sure either way, “I’m not sure what a religion is. I’m not concerned with God and I’m not concerned with my life after death. So, for those reasons a lot of people don’t think it’s a religion. Sometimes I think it is, though because it does inform a lot of my life. I write about it a lot, I meditate every day, I talk about it a lot. So, I don’t know if that’s a religion or not, but it’s something I’m really devoted to.”
Daniel teaches meditation outside of the Rime Center as well. He has led a weekly group at the Evolving Center for some time now. I ask why he does this and he tells me, “because you get something from meditating in a group, different than meditating alone. And you definitely get something out of meditating with adults rather than children because children can only do about six minutes. So when you meditate in a group it inspires you to be better at focusing. If I’m meditating at home, by myself, I can stop and watch Netflix and nobody will know. But if I’m meditating in a group and I stop, everyone will know.”
I realize I heard nothing after the part when he said children can only meditate about six minutes. WHAT?! It took me forever to get to five minutes, is he serious?
I ask to clarify: did he mean to imply he can get children to sit still for six minutes? In true zen fashion, he replies, “I can.”
Okay, I’m going to need a bit more than that. He obliges, “Part of it is when kids see other kids do it, they’re more inclined to do it themselves. My four year old son doesn’t do it. He meditates for three minutes with me before bed, but he can’t do six minutes. Most kids can, though, if they see other kids doing it.”
When I ask how Buddhism brings meaning into his life, he takes a little longer to answer. He tells me about compassion, and he tells me how because of his practice he’s better equipped to not say hurtful things when an argument arises, and he concludes that Buddhism has helped him make better decisions. He pauses and then says, “Meaning, though…well, we’re all suffering and we’re all dying, right? Buddhism doesn’t promise me heaven or an afterlife, but it does remind me that we’re all in it together. So, that’s the meaning it brings to me.”
One of the reasons some consider Buddhism a philosophy rather than a religion is that there is no deity. I ask what this means to him. “The importance of Buddha is that he was a person, and so we can do this, because we’re people, too. And in fact we have a lot of resources he didn’t have. Well, he didn’t have as many distractions as we have, but we can look up any sutra in history because of the Internet and we have meditation timers. We can do many things he couldn’t do, so the path is available to us. I think of Buddhism as very positive because a human being did it, so we can do it.” When I ask about the notion of God, he says, “Some people see the interconnectedness of all things and they call that God. I think that’s fine and it’s very profound. But, I don’t know. If I’m supposed to know, I think I’ll find out. But I’m not looking for God.”
The interview will end soon; children will start walking in any minute now, so I ask my last question, “What are you grateful for?” He jokes that he’s grateful for hot showers and soap. And then he says, “I feel like the world is only getting better. Sometimes we think it’s not because we see the news or we hear things from people. But I think the world is only getting better, even if it may not be getting better as fast as we want. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I think that’s true.”
At the time of our interview, that was exactly what I needed to hear. Now, a few weeks later, I find I needed to hear that even more.