I became interested in buddhism during my college years at UC Santa Barbara. During that hippie era, I lived in Isla Vista, next to campus, which was one of the hotbeds of the radical/anarchist movement as well as being a psychedelic New Age hippie haven. The local psychic would read your palm at the coffee house and the nude beach was only a short walk away.
I was on the SDS hit list because in my newspaper column I poked fun at their leader's efforts to whip up the crowd to close down the university. When there were no riots in the streets there was quite an interest in Eastern spirituality, but there were no organized groups except for the Yogi Maharishi's organization, which actually bought one of the larger apartment buildings for a year. They used to burn incense sticks taped to the swimming pool fence and Hindu chanting could be heard as you walked through the courtyard. This was rather humorous to me as the football team lived there the year before, drinking beer and listening to rock and roll.
I also was invited to a Religious Studies class one day by the professor at which the head honchos of Nichiren Shoshu (the so-called buddhist guys who chant for Cadillacs) were supposed to give an explanation of their beliefs. But instead they went right into their heavy-handed conversion rap. Since the lackadaisical RS students did not raise any serious questions, I took it upon myself to argue with the Nichirens about their obnoxious brainwashing techniques as well as expose their political ultra-nationalism in Japan, which was not well known here, and was informed by the chain-smoking Japanese leader that I was going to hell....I considered this a victory. Also later their group did not catch on locally, which did not bother me a bit.
I attended a few discussions about Zen led by a libertarian grad student, (who proposed the strange idea that beer was preferable to pot,) but found the sitting posture nearly impossible, so badly out of shape I was, both physically and mentally. I would sit in a corner of my apartment living room but get embarrassed when my girlfriend walked by and stared at me. I really had no idea what I was trying to do, I have to admit. This is what happens when you don't have a meditation instructor. But through my reading of Eastern spirituality vs. Western philosophy I determined that the buddhist path was more grounded in practical experience and I wanted to try that out myself. I really wanted to know what enlightenment was and thought I could find out pretty soon.
A few years later Chogyam Trungpa gave a talk at a house in Santa Barbara, but I heard about it a week too late. After all, why would anyone living in the Isla Vista god realm bother to drive a few miles to Santa Barbara, where real working people lived?? I had recently read his book Born in Tibet so I had some idea of who he was. I later went to this house and met some of his students and there seemed something genuine about them. In fact a guy I knew who came with me, a New Age charlatan of the worst sort, declared that the vibes in the house were definitely bumming him out and he was leaving and not coming back. This impressed me, because if Trungpa Rinpoche's vibes got to this nut case then Rinpoche must be a great teacher. I became determined to hook up with his group in LA when I returned there.
Subsequently, I joined the Los Angeles Dharmadhatu, and took the opportunity to attend Trungpa Rinpoche's seminars in Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, and later in Berkeley/Santa Cruz. I also lived one year in Boulder to be close to the source and another year in Denver for the same reason. I returned to LA and kept in touch with Trungpa's students.
I also became registered as a religious volunteer with the state corrections system. At first one of the Zen students and I used to make the long haul to the prison once in a while. This was in response to a request by the chaplain who said some of his guys were interested in Buddhism and wanted to meet with any Buddhist group on the outside. We were so ignorant we did not realize we could not enter the prison wearing blue jeans, as that is the standard prisoner issue, and in case of a riot the guards want to know who to shoot. So we had to drive over to the local mall and buy other clothes and change into them before we were allowed into the prison. As my companion was female I was suddenly stuck by the avid attention her words and presence received compared to mine, but upon reflection I realized we could convert the whole prison yard to the buddhadharma or any other religion if we brought in enough women volunteers to talk to the guys. One day driving home I made the comment, "It seems we are all in prison, not just the cons at the joint, but all of us imprison ourselves somehow with our ego."
Later I carried a big bag full of zafus (meditation cushions) to the prison twice a month to a meditation group I started there. The prisoners were quite sincere and were grateful someone on the outside cared enough to meet with them. Some of them had access to a great number of buddhist books donated to and purchased by the prison library. Therefore some of the guys there were better read in buddhism than I was, and this made the discussion groups very lively. I kept this group going by myself for about three years.
I propose buddhism and meditation are certainly compatible with Republican politics, but I will admit I am in the minority about this. I think some sort of contemplative practice is at the heart of every religion, and such practice does not have a political label or bias. I believe we should not be content to believe in the faith created by the founder of whatever our religion is, but actively attempt to practice the contemplative techniques these founders used to reach their insights into spirituality. Only then can we truly think for ourselves, and become what we really are.