Barry Morris, or the Practical Buddhist as he’s also known, is a writer who I’ve been following for a few years. I can’t remember what it was that connected us, but we’ve been reading each other’s work for a long time now, and even though we haven’t always seen eye to eye with each other’s viewpoints, I’ve always enjoyed reading what he writes.
Alan: Hi Barry, thanks for being here! Let’s start this off with something about yourself. Who are you, where are you from, and what are you doing with yourself these days?
Barry: Hi, Alan. Thanks for the opportunity to share my story with you and your readers. My friends call me Baz – it’s a nickname I picked up while living in England as a young lad of 18. Now I’m 57 and it’s still the name I prefer.
I currently live in San Jose, California, at the southernmost end of Silicon Valley. I moved here 45 days ago when my aging parents needed some additional in-home care. For the last decade I lived on the coast in Santa Cruz, just 30 miles west of here. I miss the ocean and the cooler temperatures, but I have no reservations about my decision.
These days, I’m writing on three different sites: The Practical Buddhist – a site I started around a book I published by the same name three years ago. I write about my Practical Buddhist path and how it’s different from other traditions and offers a more practical way to spiritual practice.
I’m also the guy behind Boost Your Productivity with Bullet Journal – a niche site that offers tips and products for using the analog life-planner.
Finally, I just started an author site around my writing, titled Barry Morris, Writer and Comedic Genius -it reflects my lighter side and how I see life unfolding. It also serves as a central location for published works.
Alan: I’ve always been interested in your practical Buddhism, but I’m curious – when did you start getting into Buddhism, and what was it that made you become a ‘practical Buddhist’? And what does it mean to be a ‘practical Buddhist’ compared to a normal Buddhist?
Barry: I can trace my interest in Buddhism to 1987. My first marriage ended in divorce and I experienced a good deal of personal rejection from our friends that were mostly from within our church community. I write in the book about how I was separated from my two young children and how even the Pastor of our church, a man I’d attended college with and counted as a friend, refused to help me regain visitation with them unless, as he put it, and I quote, “I behaved like a Christian.”
That was the beginning of the schism that occurred in my relationship with what I now refer to as Big Religion. As a result, I took it upon myself to deeply examine every belief, every conviction, and every rule I’d ever observed. Some have called with an existential crisis, but for me it was an existential awakening. The result of that year-long process was the realization that belief in anything I couldn’t experience was a waste of time and energy.
Soon after, I read the book Buddhism Is Not What You Think, by Steve Hagen. Hagen is the lead teacher at the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Reading that book was a seminal moment for me. Not only did what he wrote make sense to me, it was as if he was writing directly to me, Baz, the guy who was sitting in front of him. Although Hagen is a priest in the Zen Buddhist tradition, his writings connected with me on both an emotional and intellectual level. I then read Meditation Now or Never and Buddhism Plain and Simple, both by Hagen. I discovered that Buddhism is (and always was) a non-theistic, non-religious mode of living that wasn’t dependent on belief in anything. It was right up my street, as they say.
I spent a year or so reading works from the various Buddhist traditions including, Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, and Shambhala. Though extremely educational and intellectually wonderful to read, they all revealed a reliance on ceremony, regalia, and ritual and only served to remind me of Big Religion. I’d arrived at a place where none of that was for me and I set out to create a Buddhist practice that was devoid of these extraneous practices.
I curated a set of three active practices that I called Practical Buddhism. They included meditation, mindfulness, and compassionate-kindness.
Meditation is composed of sitting daily in total awareness focusing the mind as much as possible on simply following the breath and returning to it when the mind wanders – and it always wanders.
Mindfulness is the practice of pausing throughout the day and assessing my awareness, determining whether or not I was in the here-and-now or somewhere else. When I was somewhere else – as in worrying, daydreaming, or reliving the past – I was not in the present moment; this is where suffering or dissatisfaction begins.
Compassionate-Kindness is similar to loving-kindness in traditional Buddhist circles. It’s the practice of expressing kindness that arises from a compassionate awareness; for example, if I sense that you are sad or in need, I act to help alleviate that in some way.
I write in the book that I never became a Buddhist or a Practical Buddhist. In some traditions, you participate in a ceremony where you take refuge in the Buddha (awareness), the Dharma (the teachings), and the sangha (the community of others on the same path). I’ve never participated in such a ceremony.
For me, such ceremonies are extraneous and not essential to awakening. It might be a semantic issue, but I maintain that Practical Buddhism helps reveal meaning in life and does not make life more meaningful. Such is the essence of Buddhist practice – it’s not goal oriented, but a set of tools to use to remain in the present moment, as much as possible, where suffering can be eliminated.
Alan: Can you give a couple of examples of how you’ve practiced compassionate-kindness in the past few weeks? What was the result for you?
Barry: Sure. Sometimes compassionate-kindness is directed toward others, and at other times it can be directed to oneself. I’ll give you an example of both.
Example 1: I recently relocated from the Santa Cruz, California to San Jose, to take better care of my aging parents. I’d been a single custodial parent for the last 12 years to my youngest son who is now 19. He moved out a few months back and roughly at the same time, my parents asked if I could help them with their daily living by moving in with them.
Needless to say this has been a big adjustment for me. I was used to coming and going more or less as I pleased and I enjoyed lot of independence and a lot of privacy. Now, my life revolves around their routines and needs. I don’t regret my decision to aid them at this time of their life because they have given me everything.
However, about a week ago I started to notice some internal dialogue related to my changing lifestyle. I felt cloistered like a monk in a monastery. I noticed that I was quick to get angry at my dad given that my relationship with him over the years has often not been easy. I was a bit annoyed because I don’t get to ride my motorcycles daily as there are usually two to three times per week that I need to drive one or both of them to the doctor. These seem like first-world problems, and they are, but inside my head the battle with them is real.
I needed some compassionate-kindness from myself in order to get on the other side of these urgent, yet petty issues. I told myself that it was OK to feel these conflicted feelings because I’m human and it’s how humans react. I needed to extend kindness to myself and give myself permission to grieve the loss of my independence instead of feeling anger. I wrote a post on The Practical Buddhist blog called 9 Ways You Suffer Without Even Knowing It as a way of processing these feelings and moving on.
Example 2: This example occurred this week when I attended a Zen meditation group here in San Jose. When I arrived I noticed a young man who was talking to one of the other attendees. He admitted to living with a form of mental illness, specifically paranoid delusions. When he mentioned that, I noticed how some of the others reacted by distancing themselves from him.
Often we, as imperfect but beautifully-human beings, react out of ignorance with a standoffishness that again, is a completely human response. But on this night I felt an overwhelming compassion toward this young man. At one point during the Dharma talk, he asked a very convoluted and confusing question and the presiding teacher kind of dismissed him offhand. I felt bad for him. After the group concluded I walked over and put my arm around him and just looked into his eyes. He was surprised by my level of familiarity and perhaps I shouldn’t have been so forward, but I felt compelled to reach out to him in some way. I wished him a good evening and said that I was glad he came.
It was really nothing to do this, and I have no idea if it mattered to him. But it mattered to me after seeing how some others chose distance as their response when he might have needed to know that not everyone was repelled by him.
My favorite aspect of compassionate kindness is that it always humbles me. I can’t always know if the other person is positively or negatively affected by my kindness, but it always profoundly humbles me to express it. I feel a sense of gratitude toward Buddhism for enabling this inner development each time I engage in kindness. Perhaps this is why the Dalai Lama repeatedly says, “My simple religion is kindness.”
Alan: I was born into an atheist family and subsequently grew up with atheist beliefs and attitudes, but all that changed in my early 20’s when my own spiritual journey began as a result of a number of non-physical experiences. I looked for answers in most religions but found rigid beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and traditions, along with an intolerance towards anything that existed outside of their own beliefs.
I finally discovered answers and freedom in New Age spirituality, which helped me greatly. It also enhanced and supported my own beliefs about individual freedom, and gave me permission to practice spirituality in a way that was personal to me, rather than in ways that other people demanded of me. What I like about your Practical Buddhism is that it encourages exactly the same attitude that is important to me, and is why I’m interested in learning more about it – and led me to interview you.
Can you talk about the kind of person, in your opinion, would be interested in Practical Buddhism over normal Buddhism? Why would they consider your version of Buddhism over any other? What kind of person would be attracted to it?
Barry: Spiritual Rebels – those who see themselves as going against the stream of society’s mass consumerism, greed, excessive materialism, and the repressive conservatism of Big Religion. That describes the kind of person that would find a home in Practical Buddhism. It differs from other traditions in the ways that I’ve described already, specifically, there are no robes, rituals, or ceremonies – it’s Buddhism without the robes and ritual. It’s for those who have already gotten passed these stereotypical images and want to get on with awakening.
Recently, my youngest son has embraced a morning meditation time. He sees himself as a rebel, as I’ve described above, and is a punk rock musician as well. I gave him a copy of Dharma Punx, by Noah Levine, a punk rock guy who spent his childhood in juvenile hall (jail for minors in the US) and ultimately found his way out of addiction and violence via meditation and went on to found Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. Within this 2,600 year-old set of teachings, he’s found a way of living that was relevant to even his his generation. That’s the enduring legacy of Buddhism; it’s relevant to any generation.
When people understand that Buddhism is a non-theistic set of practices aimed at eliminating suffering, they feel less threatened and begin a search among the traditions for what feels like the best fit for them, similar to how you described your search. Practical Buddhism differs from other traditions in than it’s really a minimalist type of Buddhism. It includes the essentials for living a life of non-suffering.
Alan: I like that term – spiritual rebels. For a while in my relatively recent past I saw myself as a ‘warrior sage’: The warrior sage has nothing to prove to anyone. He lives his own life, not for others, but for what is true for himself. He doesn’t care what people think of him, and he doesn’t do things to please them. To an extent, I still think that of myself, but recognise it as a personal growth phase I was going through in my life.
And on the topic of growth, what are your Practical Buddhism goals for the future? Where do you see yourself in 2020?Are you going to establish some kind of school for Practical Buddhism? Or will you rely only on your blog and books that you write?
Barry: That’s a good question and one that I’m not sure I can answer definitively. On the website I have a page dedicated to the mission of The Practical Buddhist, as I see it. I write: “I want to foster a worldwide movement of liberated people, from all walks of life, freed from the chains of their own suffering and empowered to accomplish anything.” That’s the mission and the vision, albeit fuzzy vision at this point.
In 2020, I’d like to have established a subscriber base of 20,000 readers. That would require a much greater visibility and a much higher degree of public media interaction (which is nonexistent now). To date, I’ve not seen TPB as a business. But in order to grow the blog to this level of readership, I will need to think about it as a business, kind of like The Minimalists do for their site.
I’m working on a book of essential essays for both eBook and print distribution with a working title of Essential Essays for the Practical Buddhist. However The Minimalists, who I just mentioned, recently published a book called… Essential Essays… so I think I need a more original title. I thought I might use the tile of one recent essay called, The Buddhist Who Says F*ck and Other Essential Essays. I’m still considering something like that.
Alan: I, for one, quite like the idea of ‘Buddhism for the real world’. I have some suspicions I might even become a member, proponent or practitioner of some kind. I guess I’m already a proponent of it, by encouraging you to spread your word on this blog. We’ll see where that takes me.
Anyway Barry, I think that will do for today. Thank you so very much for your time and participation in this interview, it’s really appreciated. I look forward to being part of your ongoing endeavours with Practical Buddhism, and I hope that this interview allows a few more people the opportunity to find something they can relate to and get in touch with you. All the best!
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