Jeff Zlotnik is not the typical bully you would imagine in the school yard, from the demeanor, action and philosophy he displays today. Zlotnik became a Buddhist. In the process, he discovered what pain he had caused others – and then alchemized that pain profoundly, into something miraculous.
The same kid that used to fish his playmates’ toy trucks out of the sandbox, and throw them across a field with a mean smirk on his face, to the surprise of one of his childhood companions, had grown up and joined a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan – orange robes and all. The kid who once bullied everyone around him, Jeff Zlotnik, devoted himself to meditation and learning Buddhist philosophy.
How did Zlotnik — who used to torture others then go on to build a 6,000-square-foot temple, free to anyone interested in Buddhism, start the Meditation Initiative, a nonprofit that offers free classes in places like prisons, homeless shelters, VA hospitals, and sober living centers, and organize a coed service fraternity, Delta Beta Tau, for San Diego college students interested in doing volunteer work change so drastically? Did all the talk of peace and love really work? Or is there more to it?
When asked how he could go from being a kid who punched, kicked, and hit people, to being the poster boy for selfless service, he says with a chuckle, “It’s weird, I know. But you just never know what people are dealing with inside.”
Speaking of the Fo Guang Shan Monastery he spent so much time learning to meditate in, he says,
“There’s this notion that Buddhist practice is all about sitting under a tree, smoking dope, and talking about the infinite levels of the universe,” he says. “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.”
He eventually learned to listen to people that would him that he had hurt them, and he really listened without judgment, just hearing them out.
Though Zlotnik doesn’t reveal why he was bullying other kids when he was young in an article in Southwest Magazine on the topic, he does state that,
“Looking back on myself as a kid, I can tell you that anything bad I said or did to you wasn’t actually meant to make you feel any certain way. I was doing it to make myself feel a certain way. Does that make sense?”
What Zlotnik is describing is the ego. Whatever formed his angry, fractured self was lashing out at other kids to make him feel big, not necessarily to make others feel small.
His story mimics some of the same great lessons in the story of the yogi Milarepa. At a young age, his mother sent him to train in black magic, and he used his kills to murder many people. He would be seen by his contemporaries, as the most unlikely person to realize spiritual enlightenment, and peace with himself – thereby extending it to others.
Milarepa’s teacher, Nyingmapa Lama Rongton (Marpa), exposed him to a very grueling spiritual apprenticeship to help him burn off all his bad karma. This included building towers out of rocks with his bare hands, only to tear them down again. Finally, Marpa gave Milarepa full transmissions of all the Mahamudra teachings from Naropa, Maitripa and other Indian masters. After practicing from the teachings contained therein, Milarepa went to a remote cave, and became enlightened.
Zlotnik may not have yet achieved Nirvana, but his life’s actions show that he is well on his way. To go from terrorizing every kid in the neighborhood, to building free meditation retreats and temples for all, is the “tower-building” that Milarepa completed as part of his karmic service. From bully to Buddhist, Zlotnik might have even more good in store for him, but more importantly he is an example that even those among us who have made the most dire mistakes in life, can ascend spiritually, and achieve Buddha or Christ-like consciousness.