Interview with Tony Wiederhold
Zen Buddhist Tony Wiederhold talks with Rachel Koehler as part of her “Dynamics of Interfaith” podcast series.
Tony Wiederhold is a practicing Buddhist who can be found meditating at the Indianapolis Zen Center. He discusses the importance of mindfulness and how others can incorporate it into their lives.
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Tony Wiederholt Interview
Rachel: Hi everyone, and welcome back to another podcast episode where we get to learn the great stories of our Center for Interfaith Cooperation’s board members. Today we have Tony Wiederhold. Welcome.
Rachel: It’s so great having you today. If you could start by just telling us a little bit about yourself and what you’re involved in here in Indianapolis, that would be great.
Tony: Okay. Who am I? Let’s see. I’ve been living in Indianapolis now for about ten years. I identify as a Buddhist. You can find me sitting in meditation at the Indianapolis Zen Center a few times a week in the mornings.
Rachel: What kind of things are you involved in Indianapolis? Do you work in the community or anything of that sort?
Tony: I do. I’ve worked at Eli Lilly, a company, for fifteen years. That’s, that’s my day job.
Rachel: Very cool.
Tony: One thing I do is, for several years, I’ve been teaching yoga, teaching a community, free yoga class that takes place in the summers over here in the Newfields 100 Acres and in the winters, in the Indianapolis Zen Center. That’s a lovely way to bring people of all sorts of different backgrounds together and to have a contemplative practice.
Rachel: Very neat. How did you get involved with the CIC?
Tony: Um well, how did I got involved with the CIC. Good question. It was, maybe two or three years ago, they had an event at lunchtime, and it had to do with refugees and the children of refugees, and related to mental health issues and trauma. And my family, my parents, are Vietnamese refugees. And so, this was a topic of interest to me, so I showed up. I happened to sit at a table with Charlie Wiles and Ben. And yeah, just during the course of the day and conversing with different people and interacting within the discussion, and at the end, they were like, ‘Hey, would you be interested in joining the Interfaith Coalition for Mental Health’s committee that we have that’s involved with this work?’ So I said, ‘Sure.’ So that’s how I–I had actually not heard of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation before that. That was my entry into it, working on the committee.
Rachel: Awesome. How long have you been a part of it now?
Tony: I joined that committee, maybe two years ago, two to three years ago, and at the end of last year, I was elected onto the board of the CIC. I’m really happy to join the board and work on projects and bring people of different backgrounds together.
Rachel: Yeah, definitely. Can you tell me a little bit about life of being a Buddhist and what that means to you and maybe your spiritual journey along the way, what that’s looked like?
Tony: Yeah, so growing up, my mother and I would attend a Buddhist temple in Chicago, and one thing I hope people learn is that there are lots of different lived experiences in Buddhism. Buddhism isn’t so familiar to people in the United States. It’s very tied to different cultures, so Vietnamese Buddhism is different from Tibetan Buddhism. It’s different from Burmese
Buddhism. The temple I went to, that’s where I first learned the story of the Buddha and what these things mean. I moved away from it as I became a teenager and into college. It was–I don’t really know why, it just um… Anyway, it wasn’t until several years later I was going through some things personally, and I became curious about it again. Actually, a funny thing happened. I was playing basketball at work, right after work. I don’t play basketball during work. And I literally ran into a person on the basketball court. We literally crashed into each other, and then we became friends. This is my friend Pondu, and yeah, so he and I became friends, and we started to work out together. He’s a devout Hindu. We start having these conversations about Hinduism and Buddhism and trying to understand each other’s background perspective. At his recommendation, I attended a couple of retreats at a Hindu ashram in the Poconos at a place called Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, which is the Hindi ashram. And it was very interesting going to this as– because I was one of the few non-Indian people at this retreat, and so people were curious as to 1. How did I find out about this place? Who am I? and I indicated that I was Buddhist, and so all of a sudden I became the source of information for all things Buddhist for this entire group of hundreds of Indian people, which–
Rachel: Was that a lot of responsibility?
Tony: Well, I definitely felt that, and it made me realize that, wow, my understanding of Buddhism and Buddhist practice didn’t really evolve beyond my childhood understanding of it. And I thought, well, maybe I ought to learn more about it. So that led to further exploration of that. But actually, I learned a lot at this ashram about the Swamis and the ways of understanding their religious texts. I gained an appreciation for how precise they are. So, a Swami has to sit with their teacher for twelve years and memorize all of their scriptures and understand, not only the scriptures, but also all of the commentaries that were written to explain. So there’s a very precise way of unfolding knowledge that is in there. But anyway, that led me to return to find a Buddhist community to join. And so, I began sitting on Saturday mornings at An Lac Vietnamese Buddhist Temple here in town. I learned about it, and I was like, well, let’s go sit and
meditate with these people. I guess I neglected to mention I’d become interested in yoga and meditation along the way, which– probably back in 2009–which kind of jump-started this interest and understanding. And so, I sat there for maybe four years, and then, I ended up sitting at the Indianapolis Zen Center. And I’ve been there for several months now.
Rachel: Can you speak a little about Buddhism? And I know that is a lot of responsibility to speak to it, because I do believe that a lot of listeners may not be familiar, exactly, with the practices and what exactly goes into your journey and all of that. But can you speak a little bit about what, maybe, your meditation looks like or how you may worship, some things like that?
Tony: Yeah. For me– and this is a contrast to what Buddhism was to me as a child and the Buddhism practiced by the people I was around in the temple. That Buddhism was very much devotional, and there was a lot of prayer. And there was a lot of appeal to Buddha and a couple of Bodhisattvas. One, in particular, is Quan Am, who is known as Guan Yin in Chinese, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The Vietnamese and Chinese names mean ‘She who listens to the cries of the world.’ Basically, she embodies compassion and listening. She’s like the perfect listener.
Rachel: I like that.
Tony: Yeah. Over the years, my own practice of Buddhism has changed from that, which never really resonated with me, I think, and I think, maybe, that may be a reason why I stopped going to temple. But it definitely turned into a meditation practice. The reason is, it– so the basic teachings of Buddhism involve something called as the Four Noble Truths, and then, the Noble Eight-Fold Path. And so, the first noble truth is that all beings experience suffering. The second is the suffering is related to craving. The third is since suffering is related to craving, therefore, if you address craving, you can address suffering. And the fourth one is you can do this by understanding the Noble Eight-Fold Path. Really, the Noble Eight-Fold Path, as I’ve studied it and practiced it, to me, it is a map to the human mind and cognition. It’s not like you do step 1, then step 2, then step 3. It’s not sequential like that. But it really outlines the interrelationship between different factors of the mind. The first one is ‘view.’ The second one is ‘thought.’ The third one is ‘speech.’ The fourth one is ‘action’ and the fifth is ‘livelihood.’ So you can kind of see that, oh, your speech is related to your views and the thoughts that arise, and your speech, also, has an impact on your actions and the way you structure life, which is your livelihood. Really, by gaining insight into any one of these five, you can gain insight into the others. And likewise, if you change your behaviors and habits related to any of these five, you, therefore, change the others. The remaining three are ‘effort,’ which is, I found to be more diligence in basically, keeping with the practice. Basically, it’s just being kind no matter what. Don’t be a jerk no matter what. That’s what I think of right effort. And then there was ‘mindfulness,’ which is the understanding of, the awareness of everything going on, and finally, ‘absorption.’ That’s a little more difficult to understand, but anyway, my practice is, basically, centered on embodying these qualities as much as possible.
Rachel: So just the practice itself involves, you’ve mentioned meditation. Are there other things in regards to that, that you also do?
Tony: For me, one thing I’ve learned from meditating is that there’s no difference between my habits and how I’m meditating versus how I’m sitting here with you versus how I live at any point in my life outside. They’re all related, and there’s really no barrier. There’s no border in between these. Through the meditation practice, I can see things about myself. In a basic way, a basic explanation of meditation is–I’d explain it this way– your body has no choice but to be here, in the present, right? It’s here. And now is now, and that’s that. But maybe you’ve experienced a time where the rest of you wasn’t here at the same time as the rest of your body.
Rachel: Like your mind is elsewhere?
Tony: Things are on your mind. You might be thinking about something from the past, maybe it’s regret or a memory. Or maybe you’re imagining some future scenario, maybe it’s a positive thing or a thing you don’t like. Or maybe you’re just trying your– what I call the thinking muscle–is spinning, generating all kinds of things, right?
Rachel: I can connect with that.
Tony: Right. I like to summarize all of that as being lost in your thinking. And, for me, meditation has become this practice of unclenching that and just letting that thinking muscle– I know it’s not a muscle, it’s a brain thing, but– but allowing it just to coast to stillness.
Rachel: Is that easy now after your meditation to do? I feel like that would be– I need to meditate more, for sure, to understand that, but my mind is constantly going. So do you find that it’s easy to release?
Tony: Yeah. If I notice that I’m clenched, that I’m tight and I’m lost in my thinking– that’s really, that’s the meditation practice. Once you notice that, and one thing you might notice, when you catch yourself lost in your thinking, and if you tune into your body at that moment, you might notice that there’s a physical tightness, maybe in your jaw or your neck or your chest. Or maybe you clench your fists or something else. But you can practice ‘Oh, I am lost in my thinking. Oh, look at these physical things that are associated with that.’ If you learn to release those, it’s related to your thinking. And so, that’s how you influence your thinking. It takes a lot of practice because there are a lot of signals all around us that tell us we ought not to be satisfied. We always need to be striving for this or that. To learn what I just described to you, I had to do it through experience. And what I feel is my life’s work is showing people this and reducing barriers to showing people this, so that they, hopefully, learn it at an earlier age than I did.
Rachel: Yeah, definitely.
Tony: May I tell you one story about where–
Tony: This is a story of how I found the articulation of my life’s purpose.
Rachel: I love it.
Tony: So it was– I don’t remember if it was last summer or two summers ago. It had been a long time since my mother and I had gone to the temple in Chicago. The temple is Chùa Quang Minh on Damen Avenue in Chicago. My mother had moved down to West Lafayette near my brother after my dad passed away, and it had been maybe ten years since we went up there. One day — my mom very rarely ever asks for anything. One day, she said, ‘Hey, can we go to the temple?’ I was like, ‘Sure.’ So we went up, and it was a wonderful reunion. Mom saw her best friend at the temple there. They hadn’t seen each other in ten years. They had a lot of catching up to do. It was between services, so I decided to go meditate in the Buddha hall by myself. There was time to do that. The thing about this temple is, everything is the same. The tile is the same, the red carpeting was the same, the statues were the same, the people were the same, but ten years older. Everything. The food… It was like stepping back in time. And so I sit in the back of the hall, and I notice something I had not noticed before. So, I’m sitting in the back of the hall. In the front are a statue of the Buddha, and on the right is the Quan Am, the Bodhisattva of compassion, and on the left is Dizang, the rescuer. And above the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas was written some words. On the left side in Vietnamese and on the right side in English, and on the English side it said something like ‘Do no evil. Do good things. Keep your mind pure. These are the teachings of the Buddha.’ And I was like, I don’t know, it just struck a wrong note with me. Anyway, I read the Vietnamese side, and it was much more clear and precise. The Vietnamese side said, ‘Refrain from doing cruel acts. Performs acts of healing. Purify your mind. These are the teachings of the Buddha.’ And at that moment, I realized something. When we say, when I say ‘evil’ or I think ‘evil,’ what I really mean is ‘cruel.’ Cruelty is evil. It’s not like evil is some characteristic in a person. It’s cruelty. They want to do harm or create suffering. The second part is healing, perform acts of healing. In other words, be kind to people, love them, hold space for them. This is how you heal emotional pain. Because there’s a simple fact– this is an example of how you can find wisdom anywhere. This was a very wise statement I heard at a speech at the Indiana Economic Club. There was this speaker there, and he was like, ‘Hurt people hurt people.’ And I remember hearing that, and I was like, wow, that’s really true. You know, people do things to hurt other people–
Rachel: When they are hurt themselves.
Tony: –when they, themselves, are hurt. And maybe, they don’t even acknowledge that they are hurt. If you think about it, or if I reflect upon my own life, those times when I really wanted to be a jerk and I really wanted to ‘teach someone a lesson,’ or make somebody feel the pain that I’m feeling, is when I’m hurt. But when, over years of healing from various things, those are the clouds that obscure the radiant kindness that is, I believe, our nature. And so, in that moment, everything lined up for me, and I was like, wow, this is the articulation of how I want to live my life.
Rachel: That’s so neat. It was just this epiphany moment. I love it when things like that just light up, and you’re like ‘Yes! This is gonna happen.’
Rachel: Awesome. And you spoke a little before we started recording about different things you’re doing in the community to try to engage people in meditation and with the Buddhist community. Can you explain a little bit about what you’re doing there?
Tony: Yeah, so, I mentioned the free friendly yoga class. That’s the main way I’m working with people and the general Indianapolis community. I’ve been leading efforts to develop a mindfulness program at Eli Lilly, which started two years ago. I had just started offering free drop-in classes to my colleagues once a week, and now, with the help of some other volunteers, my friend Cheryl Ingram and my friend Manisha Kokitkar, now we offer live guided meditation five days a week at Lilly. And now we have Skype access, so people all over the corporation can call in and participate in these sessions.
Rachel: I can imagine that would be such a dichotomy between the corporate world and then taking a second for yourself. I feel like that is so necessary.
Tony: Yeah. You know, there’s … it’s been the last few years. There’s been a growing interest in this. I think people really want to express kindness and learn how to do that, and ‘How do I do the right thing?’ in all kinds of contexts, right? I mentioned to you earlier, through meditation practice and introspection, I learned there’s no line, there’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s your life, and there’s how– what is your relationship, what is my relationship to other people and situations and things that caused me pain. How can I overcome suffering, which goes back to Noble Truth #1. What can I do to be a kinder person and really– the impact that each of us have. Another thing I’ve learned is that each of us is so powerful, and each of us is so influential to the people we come into contact with. I’m having a wonderful time here, talking to you. Our conduct affects the experience of other people.
Rachel: Yeah. I can definitely see that.
Tony: Yeah. How can I help heal and alleviate the suffering of other people, which then allows them to be a force of healing for the people in their lives, and so on. This is how world peace happens, right?
Rachel: Let’s hope. I really want that. I think we could all use that.
Tony: Did I answer your question?
Rachel: Yeah, definitely. I loved all the different diversions, too, so it’s really great. So it sounds like interfaith just works hand-in-hand easily with that concept, right? How have you seen interfaith work with your own personal faith?
Tony: You know, it’s kind of an old way of thinking to think there’s a Buddhist community, and a Muslim community, and a this community and a that community. It’s true that there are these communities. There are Methodists. There are Buddhists. There are Muslims. There are Jews.
But the boundary of community doesn’t stop there. Really, we all need each other, and if I have to create some kind of mental justification to be cruel to you. First of all, I think there’s a lot of that that happens. People justify their cruelty to other people because of, you know, pick your reason. ‘God told me so’ or whatever. Or ‘They’re Godless.’ I think these are all justifications of, what am I trying to say? This is actually something I heard at the Interfaith Banquet on Sunday. ‘Interfaith is the new religion.’ We start from where we are, and we can speak within our community that way, but if we want peace on this earth, the boundaries of community are infinite. They have to go beyond what you imagine is your community, and we have to embrace all of humanity. There was actually a Sikh quote by Mr. K.P. Singh at the [Interfaith] Banquet. I think he said something like, something about the circle of God’s compassion. ‘In God’s kingdom, no one is outside the circle of love and compassion,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s something…’
Rachel: After all of your experience with interfaith and what you’ve said here, to summarize it all up, what is ‘interfaith’ to you in a couple of sentences to conclude the podcast?
Tony: What is ‘interfaith’ to me?
Rachel: Yeah. What would you define it as?
Tony: It’s building a big community. It’s working together for the betterment of all of us.
Rachel: I like that a lot. Thank you so much for being here and offering your perspective and your own personal story as well.
Tony: You’re welcome, Rachel. I’m happy to be here.