VERO BEACH – The path that Jim Patteson travelled to become an instructor of Buddhism at the Vero Beach Museum of Art began in Vietnam, where a family finding peace amidst the horror taught him on the spot how to meditate.
Today, Patteson holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, a subject he also teaches at the museum, as well as at Indian River State College. For more than a decade, the museum has supplemented its arts curriculum with humanities offerings from creative writing to opera. Patteson’s courses are among the most popular.
With classes in both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and students running the gamut from captains of industry to schoolteachers, all seek insight into one of mankind’s greatest mysteries: how the ancient practice taps into the subconscious mind.
Patteson’s two courses are known for their provocative discussions and fresh points of view. He says his students want to know how the practice of Buddhist meditation can help them live their lives.
“It can help anyone deal with anger, anxiety, and other negative emotions without interfering with their belief system,” he says.
“There’s a Catholic priest in Europe who’s a Zen master,” Patteson points out. “When it comes to philosophy, Buddhism and Christianity are different. But regarding ethics, they’re alike. When it comes to being focused in the present moment, Buddhism teaches you how to not get caught up in the personal drama.”
Patteson meditates for 40 minutes every morning, often while walking on the beach with his wife.
“We have to make a point of not talking,” he says.
Patteson’s introduction to Buddhism happened when he was a Marine in Vietnam.
“Some children were fishing and not having any luck,” says Patteson. “They asked me to heave a grenade into the river. I was 19 and stupid, so I did it. Sure enough, a lot of fish came to the top and the kids ran out and grabbed them.”
The next thing he knew, an older sister of one of the kids came up and asked him to join her family for lunch.
“It could have turned into a big mistake; you couldn’t tell who was a Viet Cong. But I was hungry, so I went.”
Sitting in that small house with no running water and a dirt floor, Patteson was surrounded by a large Vietnamese family telling him horror stories about the war.
Their village had been under attack by both the Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.
“But while they’re telling me this horrible stuff, they’re laughing and enjoying their lives somehow. This astounded me,” says Patteson. “I wondered what they had going for them psychologically, so I asked them. And they taught me how to meditate on the spot.”
The Vietnamese family told Patteson that from their point of view, the only reality is the present moment.
When he returned to his base that day, Patteson started practicing.
Later, he would credit Buddhist meditation with saving his life, when he realized if he didn’t start to pay attention, fast, he might not come home.
“If you’re a soldier walking down the trail and you’re focusing on returning home, how wonderful it’ll be, and you don’t notice the trip wire or the guy behind the tree, that can cost you your life,” he says.
Home from Vietnam, Patteson was so negative towards the war that he went to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and joined the growing hippie movement. He began taking psychedelic drugs, an experience that expanded his interest in Buddhism.
“I had an experience on LSD that was very similar to what I’d been reading about in Buddhism. I saw there was a correlation between the two,” he says.
After two-and-a-half years on a commune in Tennessee known as The Farm, Patteson went to Minnesota to study with the respected Buddhist teacher Katagiri Roshi.
There he met his wife, and began raising a family. While his mind and heart flourished, economics were a harsh reality.
“I only had a high school education and it was stressful.”
Working menial jobs to support his five children, Patteson continued to meditate at the Zen Center, studying with Katagiri Roshi for the next eight years.
It was not until much later, when he was in his forties, that Patteson started college at Indian River State College. All the while, he was working at Vero Beach parks picking up trash.
He now cautions strongly against the use of psychedelics, but for him, they provoked what he considered life-changing insights.
“I almost killed myself. At the same time, I saw God,” he says. “I was careless, but I had an enlightenment experience that totally changed my life.”
Years later, after a chemical-free seven-day meditation, Patteson had an experience even more profound.
“It was a taste of that peacefulness that Katagiri had,” he says. “It made me realize if I continued to meditate and handle my life in a certain way, I could be a very peaceful, happy person.”
More Information: Classes begin in January at the Vero Beach Museum of Art, visit www.vbmuseum.org or call (772) 231-0707.