David Perry doesn’t look 63 years old.
Frankly, the man barely looks a day over 50, and only because of his gray-white hair. Maybe it’s the brightness behind his blue eyes or his easy, frequent smile, but he fills the room with an air of youthfulness.
Perry is one of a growing number of people in the Missoula area who practices a form of Buddhism. While western stereotypes often portray Buddhists as old people with shaved heads and orange robes, many local people with very conventional upbringings have found truth in the teachings of the Buddha and apply them every day to their personal—and professional—lives.
Perry has been practicing Vipassanna meditation for 10 years, a nonsectarian form of meditation that concerns itself not with faith, worship or converting others, but with removing suffering from people’s life.
“The Buddha said, ‘Don’t believe me, don’t believe anybody, don’t accept anything based on tradition. Don’t believe anything based on the fact that your community believes this or your country believes this or the people that you are around believe this,’” says Perry. “What the Buddha taught is that there is suffering, and that [meditation] is a way out of suffering.”
In a sense, Perry helps people find their way out of suffering every day. He is a professional mediator in the Bitterroot Valley, settling domestic disputes and custody battles. Mediators differ from lawyers and judges in that they attempt to settle problems out of court, and their decisions are non-binding. Perry’s job is to get both parties to agree to the compromise. Although Perry went to law school and practiced law for 17 years, he eventually grew disenchanted with the profession.
“The practice of law is based on finding different ways to describe the same thing, either to put a rose tint on it or a black tint on it,” he says. “You’re trying to restate reality for a court or a jury.”
To Perry, truth and honesty are essential to both his life and his profession. In fact, he finds that most of his work involves finding a way through other people’s misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the truth. In his experience, a common thread runs through all human conflicts: The stated cause of the controversy is rarely what’s really going on.
Perry considers himself a practitioner of dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. Dharma is also a Sanscrit word meaning “truth,” which forms the foundation of his profession. The mediator often has to work through a couple’s resentments and petty differences before he can address the problems at hand. Generally, when his clients’ unfinished business is taken care of, the problem usually takes care of itself.
“The dharma has helped me to see things the way they are,” he says. “The whole drift of how I practice mediation is to try to really understand what is going on. Then I can bring some effectiveness to [my clients] to help get beyond that.”
Perry isn’t surprised that Buddhism has found a strong following in the Missoula area, which reminds him of San Francisco circa 1967, where he lived and practiced law for years. He says the physical setting of western Montana is conducive to spiritual rather than materialistic pursuits.
“There are enough people here who have denounced the American Dream as life’s end-all and be-all,” he says. “That seems to have created an energy here that is particularly interested in this kind of spirituality.”
Vipassanna has had other practical benefits for Perry as well. He comes from a family of alcoholics, himself included. He started meditating in January of 1987, and stopped drinking three months later. It was only years later that he made a connection between the two.
“Part of what happens when you meditate is that painful emotions and desires become less frequent visitors,” he says. “You generally become more and more content with the way things are.”
In 1989, Perry picked up a book on Vipassanna meditation and was immediately attracted to it, he says. Vipassanna, which literally means “seeing things the way they are,” has allowed Perry to approach his work without preconceived notions, a neutrality that is vital to his profession.
“Vipassanna carried with it the unmistakable ring of truth,” Perry says.
The pursuit of truth is one of the few things that the different branches of Buddhism have in common. While most Buddhists follow five basic precepts—avoid taking life, take only what is given, avoid lies and hurtful language, refrain from sexual misconduct, and avoid intoxicants—these ideas are by no means universal.
In fact, very little about Buddhism is universal. There are as many different paths of Buddhism as there are branches of Christianity, each with its own take on what is true. Some practitioners of Vipassanna, Perry included, don’t consider what they practice a religion, or even call themselves Buddhists.
So what is universal? Buddhism teaches that life’s natural state is suffering, and that the cause of all suffering is desire. People constantly desire what they don’t have, be it a big house or a new car. Buddhism teaches that no matter how often someone’s desires are fulfilled, the person will never have lasting satisfaction while they continue to desire.
Buddhism is also a highly inclusive religion, which means that a person can practice it and still be a Christian, for example, without the two religions conflicting with one another. In fact, some Buddhists see a great deal of harmony between Christianity and Buddhism.
“If you lay the three years teachings of Jesus Christ alongside the 45 years of teachings of the Buddha, they really said the same thing,” says Deanna Sheriff, director of Osel Shen Phen Ling, (OSPL) a local Tibetan Buddhist center. “Be good and kind, try to help others. Be happy and you’ll make yourself happy,”
This kind of acceptance is an everyday part of life for Leslie McCormick, a volunteer coordinator at Partners in Home Care Hospice. Her job is to pair volunteers with people with terminal diseases and try to make the patient’s final months as happy and comfortable as possible.
McCormick, 27, has been practicing Buddhism with the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Order for the last four years. She is an energetic, friendly woman who listens intently before answering questions. She talks quickly, making sweeping gestures with her hands to illustrate her point.
Being understood is important to McCormick, and she makes a point of explaining and re-explaining anything that may be vague or unclear. She resists lingo and labels, saying that people who overuse them either aren’t very creative or don’t know what they’re talking about.
McCormick was raised Catholic, but says that as she grew older, the religion became less and less relevant to her life.
“It was just becoming clearer and clearer to me that it was just not reaching a depth in me, that I was not clicking with people on a level I wanted to,” she says. “Things were just feeling less and less synchronized.”
Although McCormick began to go to church less often as she grew older, she was not trying to divorce spirituality from her life. Actually, being raised Catholic gave her a strong desire to seek out a belief system that she could believe in.
Buddhism made the most sense to her because it brought with it a sense of personal responsibility. In Buddhism, McCormick explains, there is no parental god-figure looking down upon you, punishing you if you do wrong and praising you if you do right. Each person is responsible for making decisions in his or her own life. In addition, Buddhists aren’t waiting around on this earth to go to heaven, but are constantly working toward a goal.
“Instead of waiting for the end to find out what happens to us, moment by moment we look at our mental states and pay attention to the consequences in our lives and other people’s lives,” she says.
After getting her degree in creative writing at the University of Montana, McCormick looked for a job where she could help people and seek a better understanding of Buddhism. Working at the hospice, she says, does both.
While it might seem that working with the dying for long periods of time—especially those who die young—would shake a person’s religious beliefs, McCormick finds that her work actually strengthens her beliefs. Buddhism teaches that all life is transient, that nothing stays the same for long. By working with people in their final days, McCormick confronts this reality every day.
“We all know intellectually that we are going to die, but most of us don’t know it on a deep level,” she says. “My work takes what I know intellectually and helps me to understand it emotionally.”
Buddhism also teaches that none of us is substantially different from any other being, but that our ego prevents us from seeing this. In her work, McCormick has to deal with people letting go, not only of their egos, but of the very things that once defined them. For instance, a man who used to walk every day of his life might now be confined to a wheelchair; an athletic father might not be able to play ball with his son anymore. This knowledge that, in death, we must all let go of how we lived, has helped McCormick understand her own ego.
“We all want assurance from the world around us that we are real, that we have our own identities,” she says. “But this is essentially not the case. What I am is not any kind of essential thing, but is defined by my environment.”
More importantly, says McCormick, her work keeps her thinking and living in the present. She can’t worry too far in advance, because her patients simply don’t have that luxury. Being forced to live in the moment reminds her of how precious life is.
“This work takes you down to the most real level of human interaction,” she says. “You see so much amazing love and change and suffering that it allows you to put your life in perspective.”