By Sam Litvin
In a small strip mall near SDSU is a little shop with buddha statues, incense and meditation books. The shop was once owned by a funny old Jewish man with a beard, Alfred Baron and his Thai wife. Being a octogenarian, he needed someone to take over as the business plunged further and further into debt while as he was desperate to retire. In 2009, after two long years, he thought he found the man to take it over. Jeff Zlotnik was a young man who grew up in San Diego going to temple Emanu-El every Saturday. A few years earlier Jeff came back from eleven months in Taiwan living as a Buddhist Monk. After struggling to expand with the San Diego Buddhist establishment, he decided to strike out on his own. Jeff’s community was small, they were barely paying the bills and so in no position to take on debt and run a shop full time. However, after weeks of persistence, he acquiesced to the old man and took on the shop with the idea that the shop would help bring in revenue to pay for the temple. The added revenue never came in, but the shop ended up serving as a way to get westerners to discover Buddhism as they shopped for charms, books and statues.
Taking on the strip mall shop ended up playing to Jeff’s advantage, not in the form of revenue, as it always barely broke even, but in the form of outreach to people who normally wouldn’t discover Buddhism and meditation on their own. In the back of the store Jeff created a meditation room where twice a week, people came from as far as Del Mar, packing the small room to capacity. Thus, twice a week, Jeff would turn off the lights in the front of the store and walk into the packed silent back room wearing his grey practitioner suit . He would bow to the skinny bronze Buddha statue at the front of the room with incense in his hands and then settle down on the zuffah(meditation pillow), settling into a small sermon to the curious and enthralled room on topics such as generosity, kindness, compassion, temperance and diligence. He would lead them through calming yet difficult 20 minutes of meditation warning: “Don’t expect to not have thoughts, move if you have to, you won’t have a magical experience, you won’t fly away, if someone is bothered by your movement-it’s their problem. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. If you have a thought, acknowledge it, and let it go.” At the end of the meditation, the people in the room, light-headed, settled and calm, would slowly open their eyes to three chimes from the small singing bowl. Jeff would then lead a forty minute question and answer session where young and old ask questions ranging from precepts on buddhism to problems with relationships, anger, and stress. This is how I met Jeff, in this little room in 2010 in the midst of my own emotional break-up.
For the first year, I had a combative approach when I came to these meditation sessions. I disputed at every opportunity when something didn’t make sense or if Jeff’s answer did not make me happy, I pressed on and on to what I’m sure was of annoyance to many. While I am sure I was in many ways obnoxious, Jeff joked about my questions, but always made me feel welcome in coming back. However, it was not until I completed my travels for Our Jewish Story that I learned just how interesting and hard fought the story of this one man and his community was. Over years I came to know much about the story of the Dharma bums, culminating in this interview as Jeff was in the middle of a push to raise nearly $500,000 to purchase the Dharma Bums first permanent home, an old church in University Heights.
He had been looking for a new home for some time. In fact, within two years of starting the Dharma Bum Temple (named as an ode to Jack Kerouac) the Sangha outgrew the small two-story downtown tenement in the what was once San Diego’s China Town. Sunday night classes would spill out from the second story meditation space onto the stairs and down to the main hall bellow. Like a tree in a plant that if not transferred, will whither and die, Jeff realized that they needed to move to a bigger place to survive, to give room for air and allow space for new people to enter and give new energy and life to the growing organization.
For five years they looked at churches in the area on sale, waiting for the one that felt right. In 2016, a right church opened up, the New Jerusalem church in University Heights run by Swedenborg Fellowship, who were adherents to an 18th century religious philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. When Jeff first read the listing, he wasn’t convinced; primarily the church lacked parking in what is a busy residential and business area. However, after several weeks of the idea marinating, he gave a call to a School District building across the street which said they may work something out to let the temple use their parking lot on the weekends. Next ok had to come from Maggie, she immediately felt the place had good energy and after the last ok from the board after a late evening meeting in front of the empty church, the group decided that the financial plan was sound and the plan to go ahead was set in motion. All that they needed now, was the money.
At this time, the temple had $7,000 in the bank. This is the most they ever had as the organization has a budget of only $35,000 a year which mostly goes towards the current rent in downtown. The Buddha For You shop also barely breaks even and all that it makes goes to pay for downtown temple costs. Maggie and Jeff live simply: “It’s not a sacrifice” Jeff said, it’s a way of life that they are ok with because of what what they get in return, a feeling of making a difference. Prior to becoming a man of the community, Jeff had a good income during the DotCom era as an HR consultant. He lived and partied in downtown, spending hundreds of dollars on nightclubs, drinks for all his friends and lavish trips. However, he realized began to realize that he was in effect living an empty lifestyle. His current life of helping students create a fraternity for college kids who would otherwise never join one, feed homeless once a week, teach alcoholics how to take hold of their lives and prisoners of how to find strength in a difficult place, are all experiences that provide him bountiful riches which cannot be purchased.
Over the years never once asked for money for the temple from the hundreds and thousands of people who came through his door. In fact he would always say that no one should charge for meditation. A small change to bowl near a Buddha stood nearly always full no matter how often he’d say: “It’s your mind and your mess, you shouldn’t have to pay anyone for.” After years of serving the community without asking for anything, it was time to send a request to the universe to serve a larger community, and the universe answered.
Within a day of that late night board-meeting in front of the church, the website was up and contributions poured in. Sometimes it was a college kid with a $1, sometimes it was $1000 from someone who chose to forego purchasing of a car for another year. Reasons varied as people realized that money meant little to them without peace of mind that Dharma Bums provided for them. Jeff poured his energy into fundraising like a start-up entrepreneur. Hundreds of emails were emailed, texts went to every contact, social media posts were made on every relevant website and group. Within a week, they raised enough to make an offer. In fact $103,800 in 2 weeks from 321 people in the community. Jeff said: “When I was asked if we had a wealthy community I said I have no idea how much money they have but I know they have the heart to get this done.” Within another week they raised enough to start escrow and then another to be able to make a payment.
When I decided to write this article, I asked Jeff how he does it, isn’t he scared. In a sign of uniqueness of character he said: “No, I know I’ll make it. I’ve always been this way. I never doubted myself in anything I tried. You can ask my mom, it’s just how I am. I didn’t always succeed, but I never doubted.” This characteristic must be in part what made him take this unorthodox life-route. Making good money, one day while in a line to a club, he realized the emptiness of it all, he remembered the book Introduction to Zen Buddhism he read as a twenty-year-old in college by D.T. Suzuki. Next morning Jeff woke up with another headache from drinking and made his way to a temple nearby. He would start attending the temple daily, moving out of his expensive downtown apartment to a smaller place in University Heights. When the Buddhist Nun said: “You work so hard to make so much money to buy so many things. If you didn’t have so many things, you wouldn’t have to work so hard and you wouldn’t need so much money” he made an even more drastic change.
Within two years of that statement, Jeff lowered his income to just enough to spend on life and his spending on life to just enough to live. He became the de-facto President of the organization in San Diego and when it was time to grow; he was sent to live in a temple in Taiwan to study under Venerable Master Hsing-Yun. The week before his departure, he rode out with his friends in a van to the Coachella valley for the Coachella Valley Music Festival (I’ve attended the festival more than a few times myself) as his last hurrah before putting on the robes.
Next week he arrived at the temple in Taiwan. Somehow, he was able to turn off a rebellious leader characteristic inside which made him disagree with the nun at his temple in San Diego. Engrossed into the culture and way of life, he became one of the hundreds of similar shaved heads and identical brown robes, while at the same time being distinct in being one of the very few who was not born in Asia. For eleven months he learned the sutras, beat drums, ate simple rice and meditated for long hours. He settled into this simple way of life was comfortable with the consistency of wake up, meditate, teach, learn, eat sleep. It was at this point that his Master came to him and asked him: “How are you?” “Great, I feel good here” Jeff replied. The Master said as if reading from a line in a movie: ”Then you must go. You must go back and do what you do here where you are needed.”
This was now 2006, Jeff moved back to San Diego with the intention of sharing the teachings of the Buddha and taking them to the source, to Taiwan every six months to have westerners learn about Buddhism from the masters. When his idea did not suit the nun whose views did not match Jeff’s due to her old-style traditionalist view, he started another center in Golden Hill with another renown master who like Jeff was also originally from San Diego, went to Taiwan for over a decade and chose to start his own brand of Buddhism. However even with this arrangement, it was still not quite what Jeff envisioned, leading him to create the Dharma Bums as it is today. It was through this arrangement that he was able to teach to young and old, rich and poor. To people with small problems of relationships and school and people with big problems like those in prisons and Alcoholics Anonymous. As a result of his work, Jeff ended up in films and articles on Buddhism and his fraternity received national coverage. His openness granted him invitations to teach meditation to church groups and synagogues. Local rabbis recognized that congregants who meditated were less stressed and were happier and more attentive at services. It became clear to all who interacted with Jeff that this was a different kind of Buddhism and a different kind of congregation that saw no barriers, no divisions and an organization that was not perceived as threat by anyone but as an ally to do the good work that is so needed in this day and age.
I asked Jeff how his Jewish upbringing influenced him. I wanted to understand what is it about Jews that makes them gravitate to Buddhism as many of the biggest Western names in Buddhism come from Jewish roots. He said that he doesn’t know, but when he recently went to a wake of his friends’ mother, he saw his child-hood Rabbi Marty Lawson give a speech. He said that he felt deep respect and gratitude for the rabbi, recognizing the difficulty of leading a congregation for over forty years. He recognized that the work he did was not all that different and that if perhaps, he read Torah when he was in college, or was approached by a Chabadnick who were less ubiquitous then compared to today, perhaps he would be a rabbi at a synagogue today. However if he was a rabbi, he would still feel confined as his style is far more open than what even Reform Judaism allows. However, he the commonality between his efforts and those of all rabbis did not escape him, he saw that the problems one must grip with when leading a congregation including politics, grievances, trials and tribulations were not unlike his own problems and difficulties. It was the Rabbi who invited him to give meditation lessons who was also his childhood rabbi. His rabbi never stopped being his rabbi because even as Jeff went off on his own path, teaching a religion of a different culture and people, his rabbi continued to guide him, advising that “Even if 51% of the congregation disagrees with you, you have to do what you feel in your heart is right, because that’s why you’re in that position.”
In an age when there is so much fear of intermarriage. When Orthodox feel Reform Jews are not Jews and when we are in the death match between world’s religions, it is liberating and encouraging to see, the spirit of cooperation, the understanding that what is right is to give people an opportunity and option to feel better, and a go ahead to be compassionate, to be kind, to be less selfish, to raise the community together. After all, we all pick the path that best suits us, if it be a Catholic woman who discovers Judaism, a Jew who finds Buddhism, a Protestant who finds Islam or a Muslim who finds B’hai. What matters is that they have the choice to be who they are, that none of them cause each-other harm. That is the story of Dharma Bums, made permanent, once this simple Jewish Buddhist monk buys the old church in the neighborhood of old University Heights.
Listen to the SoundCloud interview here.
To help Jeff and the Dharma Bums by making a tax-deductible contribution, please go to: www.dbtnewhome.com