The Bully and the Buddhist

A former schoolyard bully, Jeff Zlotnik found a new identity through Buddhism. A classmate wonders why he changed—and if he remembers the pain he caused.

When I tell my dad that I’m on my way to go hang out with Jeff Zlotnik, he laughs. “Once, when you were a kid, I asked why you were so scared of Jeff. You said, ‘Because he’s so much bigger than me.’”

In reality, I was easily a head taller than Jeff. But he was so confident and aggressive that he may as well have been twice my size. Jeff always loomed large in my life. My earliest memory of him is from kindergarten. It was recess, and a bunch of us were playing in the sandbox. I was busy digging up dirt with a little plastic shovel, making tunnels to push toy vehicles through. I’d loaded up a Fisher-Price trolley with action figure passengers and was having a great time. Out of nowhere, Jeff ran up, swiped the toy from me, and threw it out of the sandbox and into the nearby plants. He smiled, but it was a mean smile—Jeff’s signature smirk. It was the first time I remember feeling like someone wanted to make me feel bad. I went home and cried to my mom.

Eric Steuer (left) and Jeff Zlotnik as kids

A few years later, Jeff and I were on a soccer team together. During a game, he kicked the ball to me—a rare thing. I wasn’t exactly well-known for my athletic prowess, and Jeff’s vote of confidence made me feel especially good. But at the last second, I reflexively stopped short of capturing the ball and let it sail past my feet—right into the clutches of a forward on the other team. I knew what was going to happen next, and it did: Jeff screamed at me, calling me an idiot and an oaf. What hurt the most about it was that I kind of agreed with him. Why didn’t I want to win as much as he did?

There were other incidents over the years—the time he told me I couldn’t sit with him and his friends at lunch, the time he picked a fistfight with me in the schoolyard over a girl we both liked. Honestly, none of it was too major—just kids’ stuff. But I was a painfully sensitive boy, the kind of born introvert who preferred Star Wars to sports, and Jeff’s actions had lasting effects on me. He made me aware that there were places I didn’t belong and groups I’d never be a part of. So, while I’d see Jeff frequently throughout the rest of my childhood—at school, sports, temple, Boy Scouts, and even family gatherings,since our moms ended up becoming good friends—I stopped trying to get him to like me. And by the time we got to high school, I really only observed Jeff as an outsider. He joined the football team, while I made music and took drama classes. I had good friends, but I never quite fit in with the cool kids. I marveled at how Jeff and his crew seemed to have things all figured out, how they seemed to be free of the confusion and self-doubt I often felt.

It was a surprise, to say the least, when I first learned that Jeff had gotten deeply into Buddhism. We’d been out of college for a few years when I heard a rumor that a woman we’d grown up with had seen Jeff shopping at the mall, fully decked out in an orange monastic robe. A while later, my mom called me with the news that Jeff had moved to Taiwan temporarily and was living at a monastery, devoting himself to meditation and Buddhist study.

I was completely dumbfounded. What in the world led to this?

Part of me was skeptical. I’m not even sure exactly what I was skeptical of—that Jeff had become some sort of new man, I guess. But I wasn’t alone. At a friend’s wedding around that time, I ran into one of our elementary school teachers, the woman who’d taught me and Jeff to do fractions and write in cursive. We chatted for a bit, and Jeff’s name came up. “I’ve worked with a lot of kids over the years,” she said, “and you can see who they are at their core by the time they get to my class. I don’t buy his ‘peace and love’ stuff one bit.”

Over time, I started hearing about various projects Jeff was devoting his life to. After returning home from Taiwan, he opened a temple free to anyone interested in Buddhism. He started The Meditation Initiative, a nonprofit that offers free classes in places like prisons, homeless shelters, VA hospitals, and sober living centers. He organized a coed service fraternity, Delta Beta Tau, for San Diego college students interested in doing volunteer work. Jeff and I eventually started following each other on Facebook, where he posts a steady stream of affirmations, calls for more kindness in the world, and reminders to friends about life’s preciousness. As I followed Jeff online and learned more about his activities, I went from incredulous to intrigued.

There was no doubt, it seemed, that Jeff had found his true calling, and that he was all in. On a whim, I sent him an email to ask if he’d be interested in spending some time together. I wanted to hear about his journey. He told me he was glad I’d reached out and that he’d love to reconnect. He invited me to visit him.

Jeff greets me with a big hug at the new home of the Dharma Bum Temple, the meditation and Buddhist study center he runs with his partner. After 10 years in downtown San Diego, Jeff discovered he needed more space to accommodate the growing community. Late last year, he found a closed 1927 Swedenborgian church for sale in University Heights and decided to go for it. There was one problem—money. The purchase would require nearly half a million dollars as a down payment; meanwhile, Jeff’s programs operate on a shoestring budget and are fully driven by donations. So he turned to Facebook, using the platform to launch a fundraising drive that he hoped would inspire his family, friends, and community members to help make it happen.

For three and a half months, he committed himself full-time to the campaign, waking at 6 a.m. to post the first of each day’s many status updates and donation challenges while exercising on a treadmill, and then winding down in the late evening with motivational quotes and messages of gratitude. Jeff worked harder than he ever had before, and on Valentine’s Day of this year the last donation he needed to meet his goal rolled in online. Local media covered the campaign’s incredible success, and numerous fundraising consultants contacted Jeff to tap him for his secrets. “It was the greatest Buddhist practice I’ve ever done in my life,” Jeff says. “Because every single moment, there was something that needed to be done. And all that could be done in that moment was the one thing that was needed.”

The temple is beautiful, about 6,000 square feet, with a perfect combination of wide-open convening spaces and small alcoves for reading and intimate discussions. It was important to Jeff to retain the church’s historical and religious features, so the large cross that adorns the entrance and the pews inside the congregation area remain intact.

During my visit, several people from the neighborhood drop in. A longtime resident who read in the newspaper about the temple’s relocation says hello and signs the guest book. A homeless man stops by to relax and ask some questions. Jeff tells him the temple is open to all.

He takes me around to meet some of the people currently living in the temple. They’re of all shapes and sizes and walks of life. I talk to a mom in her 50s wearing a tie-dye sweatshirt, and then a guy in his late teens, hunched over a sheet of paper, drawing possible logos for the temple. Jeff tells me that the beauty of this community is that it’s filled with people who are leaders themselves—residents and other community members routinely teach meditationto anyone who shows up. His goal is to be completely dispensable, for it to be possible for the temple to run without him.

“It’s weird, I know,” Jeff says.“But you just never know what people are dealing with inside.

Jeff’s demeanor is calmer, much looser than what I remember from when we were kids. He smiles a lot and often seems to be on the verge of laughing. He listens intently when people speak, then replies deliberately, always making eye contact. I tell him that while it’s really nice to see him in this environment, it’s also kind of jarring—almost like something out of a dream. He’s not surprised to hear this. “Yeah, I mean when I tell the people here that, as a kid, I used to punch people, pick on people, and do those kinds of things, they’re shocked,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Who, you?’ They can’t believe it.”

Eric in high school

It’s oddly validating to hear Jeff say this. Because I’d started to second guess myself and wonder if I’d just made up a convenient narrative about him, telling it to myself over and over, adding small details each time, until it was essentially divorced from reality. But the way Jeff describes himself as a kid is remarkably in line with my memories.

“It’s weird, I know,” he says with a chuckle. “But you just never know what people are dealing with inside.

After high school, Jeff went away to college at the University of Arizona. Not long after he arrived, he began looking for a fraternity to join. One house in particular seemed like the best fit—the guys in it were jocks with a reputation for partying hard. But just before he pledged, Jeff ran into a friend from back home who was a couple years older. He suggested that Jeff give his fraternity a look.

Beta Theta Pi was known as “the gentleman’s fraternity,” and its members were expected to be polite, respectful, and positive contributors to the local community. While it wasn’t what he had in mind for himself when he got to school, Jeff was drawn to it for some reason, and joined soon after.

Through the Beta house, Jeff started doing community work and, in his junior year, began volunteering in a group home for teenage girls. The experience was harrowing, and it opened his eyes to the reality that many people do not enjoy anything like the comfortable life he’d always known. Some of the kids had been sexually abused. Others had been helping their parents deal drugs since elementary school. “I’d only seen things like it in movies,” Jeff says. “I realized I hadn’t done much thinking about people that weren’t like me.”

Around that same time, Jeff was exposed to Buddhism through a college class. He was surprised by how deeply the teachings resonated with him. “It was all new to me, and it was hard to put into words how much it inspired me,” he says.

After graduation, Jeff moved to Philadelphia to begin a career in business consulting. Then, around the time of the dot-com boom, he found his way back to San Diego, where he consulted remotely for tech companies in Silicon Valley. He was good at the work and made a lot of money doing it. He had a nice car and a big loft downtown. He went to trendy restaurants during the week and partied with friends at clubs on the weekends. But a few years into his career, Jeff, then 27, began to notice feelings of emptiness, dissatisfaction, and even depression creeping up.

A childhood friend had become casually interested in Buddhism and was occasionally visiting a local temple, Hsi-Fang, to take meditation classes. She remembered that Jeff had talked a lot about his brief introduction to Buddhism back in college. She could tell that Jeff was struggling, that he wasn’t happy despite his successful career. So, one day, she invited him to join her.

Jeff in high school

Jeff loved everything about the temple. The warmth he felt there, and the focus on wisdom, morality, and mindfulness. He told himself he would return immediately for more. “But life got in the way,” he says. “And I didn’t make time to go back.”

Then, one night, a few months later, Jeff was out with friends. While waiting in line to get inside a club, a brief but intense wave of sadness and panic washed over him. He had something resembling a vision. “It was a flash, just 20 seconds long,” he says. “But I could see every detail of what my entire night was going to be like: I’m going to pay this doorman way too much money so I can get in the VIP section. I’m going to drink too much and chase some girl around. And then I’ll wake up tomorrow and I’ll feel like absolute crap and totally empty.”

And that was exactly how that night played out—scene for scene. So, the next morning, nursing a wicked hangover and knowing he wanted something greater out of life, Jeff decided to return to Hsi-Fang Temple for another visit.

Jeff spent the next two years going to the temple almost every day, and even moved into a small cottage nearby so he’d be just steps away. He meditated, read, and participated in Hsi-Fang’s community volunteer programs. He felt like he’d found his purpose. Then, at the end of 2004, Jeff’s teacher, the Venerable Yi-Jih, presented him with an opportunity: Move to the temple’smonastery in Taiwan to study there. Without hesitation, Jeff packed up and lived for the next year at Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan’s largest Buddhist monastery and the home to one of the area’s largest philanthropic organizations.

The monks and nuns Jeff lived with at Fo Guang Shan devoted themselves fully to practicing kindness and performing charity. “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 listened to people tell him that he’d hurt them. He didn’t make excuses; he just heard them out.

Eventually Yi-Jih told Jeff it was time to go back home. “She said I needed to figure out how to integrate what I’d learned there into the culture where I grew up.” Jeff returned to San Diego on a mission to use Buddhist teachings to help alleviate suffering in the people around him. He started volunteering in prisons and juvenile detention centers. He took over a gift shop called Buddha for You and sold Buddhist books and meditation supplies. He led meditation classes and began building a community at the Dharma Bum Temple. He was driven.

“I knew I was still a powerful person, someone who wanted to win,” he says. “But there’s nothing to win in Buddhism. So, I figured I’d use that part of my personality to make positive change, after having affected people negatively for a long time.”

A few years ago, at our 20-year high school reunion, Jeff had what he calls a come-to-Jesus moment. He arrived alone at the downtown San Diego hotel ballroom that hosted the gathering. For weeks, he’d been looking forward to seeing what had become of our old classmates.

Early on in the night, someone Jeff had picked on pretty badly in high school walked up to him. “Hey, I saw on Facebook that you’re doing all this Buddhist stuff, and it’s really great,” she said. “But can you tell me why you were so mean to me when we were kids?”

Another woman approached next, beer in hand. She took a breath and downed a big sip. She wanted to know the same thing.

Ultimately, Jeff’s night turned into a series of conversations on this theme. He listened to people tell him that he’d hurt them. He didn’t make excuses; he just heard them out. And then he apologized as openly and honestly as he could.

I walked from group to group that night, hearing all kinds of people talk to each other about how strange and surprising it was that Jeff Zlotnik—yes, Jeff Zlotnik—now devoted his life to Buddhism, meditation, and helping others. Most people were fascinated by it. Some seemed amused. I heard one woman, who Jeff had been particularly awful to, say she was “so proud” of him. I admired her grace, but for some reason, it also aggravated me. I didn’t want her to accept his apology so easily.

Later in the evening, Jeff took me aside and told me he was sorry if he’d ever hurt my feelings. I told him I appreciated the apology, but that it was unnecessary—that I barely remembered any of it. But the truth is that the apology made me feel small, like the fact that I still cared at all about this ancient junk really just meant that Jeff continued to have an unreasonable, embarrassing amount of power over me.

A couple times when I’ve gotten together with Jeff this year, he’s brought up the conversations he had at our reunion. He talks about them in a way that suggests, at least to me, that while he knows they were important to people, he might not fully grasp just how life-changing they likely were. “I was surprised that anyone knew as much as they did about what I’d been up to,” Jeff says to me one day in the small library inside the Dharma Bum Temple. “I didn’t expect they would care.”

“But of course they care,” I tell him. And then I think to myself that if they’re anything like me, they’ve been paying too close attention to his story over the past few years, hoping that learning more about the path he chose might help them glean some kind of understanding about themselves.

The next time I see Jeff, he shares a memory he’s ashamed of. When we were 15, he and some other boys roughed up a kid, someone we’d all known since we were little. They pushed and shoved him around, laughing at him in front of a bunch of other kids. Recently, he came in to the temple, briefly, just to look around. He and Jeff had a light, friendly chat—almost as if there were no awkward history between them.

At the time, Jeff didn’t think too much of it. But after further consideration, he has another take. “I understand why he came in to see me,” Jeff says. “So he could see that me being mean to him wasn’t about his worth; it was about mine. It wasn’t him; it was me.”

Typically, when Jeff travels to deliver his talks at schools, jails, hospitals, and treatment centers, he wears a dress shirt, slacks, and a vest. He calls this his “professional look,” and it’s designed to put people at ease. “I want everyone to know that I’m no different than them,” he says. “If I show up in robes, it might make people who aren’t familiar with this stuff feel like it’s foreign or strange, or like I think I’m holier than thou.”

Jeff spends a lot of his time these days with young people, going into high schools to talk about the benefits of meditation. He says kids in the 15- to 18-year-old range are his favorite to work with. Because they’re dealing with so much new stress and complexity in their lives, they have so much to gain by learning to focus and improve their emotional well-being.

He tells me about a recent visit to a school just a few miles north of where we grew up. From the floor of the auditorium, Jeff spoke to a large group of students about anger and his experiences discovering meditation. Jeff is a natural when it comes to public speaking, and he’s had tons of practice. The kids listened attentively.

Soon, he noticed a boy sitting off to the side, slightly apart from the rest of the group. Something about him felt familiar. “Just the look in his eye, the body language,” Jeff says. “I could tell he was angry and really suffering.” Jeff shifted his focus, making frequent eye contact with the boy as he spoke to the gathering. He felt like he might be able to help with whatever the kid was going through—and, consequently, maybe save some of the people in the boy’s life from being affected by his acting out. “All of a sudden, I had this memory from when I was in school,” Jeff says. “I could see myself going up and tearing out these plants that one of my teachers had in the front of her classroom. For no good reason—just to get a reaction.”

After the talk, the boy stayed behind and approached Jeff for a one-on-one. “You kept looking at me,” the boy said hesitantly. “And I felt like you were looking right into my head.”

“I know exactly who you are,” Jeff laughed. “Because I am you.”

Jeff and I hang out again, this time in San Francisco, where I live with my wife and son. He’s come up north to officiate a friend’s wedding in Yosemite. Unfortunately, there’s been a fire in the area, and the nuptials have been postponed. Since he’s got a free evening, we get tea and walk around town, talking. He’s as busy as ever. Things are feeling more settled with the temple’s relocation, and lots of new people are stopping by. The Meditation Initiative is getting calls from groups all over San Diego. School’s back in session, and Delta Beta Tau’s latest pledges are taking on new volunteer projects around the city.

As usual, our discussion eventually leads back to the old days. I tell him that I recently realized I’ve been avoiding talking to him about one important thing: the effect he had on me when we were growing up. I’ve been keeping the details about my own feelings pretty vague, slyly playing the role of an objective outsider whenever we get together to talk. In large part because, quite frankly, I’m not sure that he would even remember any of the specific incidents that I’ve been holding on to so closely for all these years. It’s embarrassing to imagine bringing them up, only to have him reply with a blank look.

He encourages me to go through my list, so I do. The sandbox, the soccer field, the schoolyard. Just as I figured, none of them ring a bell. I’m actually relieved, and I tell him that while I know that the events in my memories sound like super small things, they were huge factors in shaping how I felt about myself for a long time

“Looking back on myself as a kid,” he says, “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?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It makes sense.”

I share the anecdote about our elementary school teacher, the woman who told me she believed kids were, at their core, pretty much who they’d always be by the time she met them. Jeff winces, and then laughs. “It’d be pretty sad if that was the case, wouldn’t it?”

But he quickly follows up with an additional thought. “I am the same person, I guess,” he says. “It’s not that my thoughts are necessarily different—it’s that my actions are. Buddhist teachings haven’t changed who I am, but they’ve changed what I do.” He offers his favorite quote by Shunryū Suzuki, the monk who popularized Zen Buddhism in the United States: “You’re all perfect exactly how you are. And you all could use a little improvement.”

Jeff shares an ice cream cone with Eric’s son, Franklin, in San Francisco this summer.

After dinner at an Indian restaurant with my family in the Mission, we walk to an ice cream shop. Jeff buys a pistachio cone for himself and a strawberry cone for my son, Franklin. He’s 4 years old, just a little younger than Jeff and I were when we first met. The two of them sit on a bench in front of the shop, eating ice cream in the warm night. Franklin looks so sweet, and I find myself thinking about how much I want him to stay this way forever. But I also want something else for him: the power to assert himself and not be so sensitive that he gets bowled over by people who are mean to him. Because people will, of course, be mean to him, and there’s no good reason that these moments should hang around in his head forever.

I snap a photo of Jeff and Franklin eating ice cream together. They’ve both got huge smiles—each has found a friend for life. It’s a funny picture, and for me it’s also strange and profound. It’s a picture I could never have imagined when I was growing up. It’s a picture I’ll never let go of.

Eric Steuer is a contributing editor at Wired. Email him at steusrus@gmail.com.

Photography by Jason Madara

Originally Published November 2017