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Lions Roar : July 2018
paper drawing possible logos for the temple. Jeff told me the beauty of the community is that it’s filled with people who are leaders themselves—residents and other community members routinely teach meditation to anyone who shows up. His goal is to be completely dispensable, for it to be possible for the temple to run without him. Jeff ’s demeanor was calmer, much looser than what I remem- bered. He smiled a lot and often seemed to be on the verge of laughing. He listened intently when people spoke, then replied deliberately, always making eye contact. It was nice, but jarring, to see him in this environment—almost like something out of a dream. I told him so. He was not surprised to hear it. “When I tell the people here that, as a kid, I used to punch people, pick on people, and do those kinds of things, they’re shocked,” he says. “They can’t believe it. “It’s weird, I know,” he says with a chuckle. “But you just never know what people are dealing with inside.” AT AGE TWENTY-SEVEN, Jeff began to notice feelings of emptiness, dissatisfaction, and even depression. A friend was visiting a local Buddhist temple to take meditation classes, and she invited him to join her. Jeff loved everything about the temple—the warmth he felt, the focus on wisdom, morality, and mindfulness. He told himself he would return immediately for more. “But life got in the way,” he said. “And I didn’t make time to go back.” Then, a few months later, Jeff was out with friends. While waiting in line to get inside a club, an intense wave of sadness and panic washed over him. The next morning, nursing a wicked hangover and knowing he wanted something greater out of life, Jeff decided to return to the temple for another visit. Jeff spent the next two years going to the temple almost every day, and even moved into a small cottage nearby. He meditated, read, and partici- pated in community volunteer programs. He felt like he’d found his purpose. In 2004, Jeff packed up to live at Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan’s largest Bud- dhist monastery, where monks and nuns devote themselves to practicing kindness and performing charity. “There’s this notion that Buddhist practice is all about sitting under a tree and talking about the infinite levels of the universe,” Jeff said. “But they were the hardest-working people I’d ever seen in my life. They put me on a path to be as compassionate in each moment as possible.” After a year there, Jeff ’s teacher told him it was time to go back home. “She said I needed to figure out how to inte- grate what I’d learned into the culture where I grew up.” Jeff returned to San Diego on a mission to use Buddhist teachings to help alleviate suffering in the people around him. He started volunteering in prisons and juvenile detention centers. He led meditation classes and began building a community at the Dharma Bum Temple. He was driven. “I knew I was still a powerful person, someone who wanted to win,” he said. “But there’s nothing to win in Buddhism. So, I figured I’d use that part of my personality to make positive change, after having affected people negatively for a long time.” A FEW YEARS AGO, Jeff had what he calls a come-to-Jesus moment about his past as a bully. It was at our twenty-year high school reunion. He’d arrived alone at the downtown San Diego hotel ballroom hosting the gathering. For weeks, he’d been look- ing forward to seeing what had become of our old classmates. Early on in the night, someone Jeff had picked on pretty badly in high school walked up to him. “Hey, I saw on Facebook that you’re doing all this Buddhist stuff, and it’s really great,” she said. “But can you tell me why you were so mean to me when we were kids?” Another woman approached next, beer in hand. She took a breath and downed a big sip. She wanted to know the same thing. Jeff ’s night turned into a series of conversations on this theme. He listened to people tell him that he’d hurt them. He didn’t make excuses; he just heard them out. And then he apologized as openly and honestly as he could. I walked from group to group that night, hearing all kinds of people talk to each other about how strange and surprising it was that Jeff Zlotnik—yes, Jeff Zlotnik—now devoted his life to Buddhism, meditation, and helping others. Most people were fascinated by it. Some seemed amused. I heard one woman, Steuer marveled that Zlotnik (above) seemed free from the confusion and self-doubt he often felt. LION’S ROAR | JULY 2018 45