Why I am a Buddhist, part 1

Daibutsu, Great Buddha in Kamakura, Japan

Daibutsu, Great Buddha in Kamakura, Japan

Calling myself a Buddhist makes me uncomfortable. In a way, that’s why I became one.

Let’s see if I can be a little less obtuse.

My search for ultimate meaning started early. My mother was diagnosed with leukemia, and died just before my fifth birthday. The adults around me did their best to explain and to console me, but not much of what they said about death – and where exactly my mother had gone – made any sense to me. God? Heaven? Angels? You die, and somehow you end up in this really nice place where everyone you ever loved eventually shows up too, and then you spend eternity there. But, you have to earn it.

Even at five, that sounded fishy to me.

I tried. I really tried, until I was sixteen, to believe and trust in what I had been taught, about Jesus and God and Christianity. Some of it sounds okay, like the being-nice-to-each-other parts, though I didn’t see a whole lot of that going on. There was Mother Teresa, and 45 minutes on Sundays and holidays, and not much else to Christianity as far as I could see. And although the idea of living forever had its appeal, on a visceral level it also horrified me. While the cosmology of Christianity was hard to accept, and contradicted what I was learning in science, I wanted to believe in that moral system and that view of the universe, and as long as I did, I was sincere.

I don’t want to slam Christianity, I really don’t. But the most important legacy I have from those years is a supreme dissatisfaction with what is generally accepted as normal. “Reality.” I embraced the idea that it’s vital to know what’s really going on here. Most people don’t have that. My friends tend to be people who do.

So, what happened at sixteen? Disillusionment, what else? I began to wake up to the greater reality of the world and this life, and like any thinking, feeling person, I was appalled. I read Bertrand Russell and saw religion in a new light. The scales dropped from my eyes, I became an atheist, and I began to read the existentialists.

What I found there made more sense than anything I had heard so far. The world, and life itself, they say, are essentially meaningless; the only meaning there is, has to be created by each person in his or her own life. Existentialism is the only form of Western philosophy I ever heard of that begins with the idea that life is suffering.

But there was something wrong with it, too. Something too bleak, or complicated, and definitely egocentric. It didn’t quite satisfy me.

Then, my senior year of high school, I read Siddharthaby Herman Hesse. Here at last I recognized something true, something that rested quietly inside my mind. There was a lot that I didn’t understand, but the core of it resonated with me like nothing else ever had.

“… all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life…”
– Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

But I was too cynical to join up then. I had just shed Christianity, I didn’t want to become a part of some other religion. I mistrusted yet another “ism,” as so many of us do, and rightly so. I became a punk rocker, appreciating the irony of aligning myself with a group of nonconformists. That kind of irony is an essential element in Zen, by the way, so this was good training. The connection between Zen Buddhism and punk has been well described in Brad Warner’s book, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality.

Nevertheless, in college I took a Chinese philosophy class, knowing that the emphasis was on Taoism and Cha’an Buddhism (“Zen” is the Japanese way of saying “Cha’an”). I discovered that, although the tradition of the teacher-student relationship is fundamental to Zen, so is the punk rock value of questioning authority.  Be a lamp unto yourselves, were Buddha’s last words. That made sense to me.

And, famously, the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” How punk rock is that!

I learned to meditate with a small group from that class, even chanted a little, self-consciously. The professor took some of us on a field trip to another town, where there was a Zen temple. That was a very conflicting experience for me, and for some of the others, too. It was a beautiful building, clean and airy, with nice-smelling incense, filled with good people who seemed sincere. But a bunch of white people walking around in Eastern-looking robes? Their heads shaved? Talking in riddles? And why were we bowing to this statue of Buddha, when I had thought we were supposed to kill him?

What did any of this have to do with that still, deep truth I had sensed in “Siddhartha”?

All of that made a strong impression. I had doubts, but I was still interested. My worldview was developing, and I got some good ideas from Buddhism, what little I understood. I wasn’t really sure I needed a spiritual system at all, though even in college I realized that it was just possible that I wouldn’t be able to come up with all the answers myself.

(Part 2 here.)

4 Responses to “Why I am a Buddhist, part 1”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    Thanks for (the partial) history of your Buddhism.

    As we’ve discussed, I’ve tried sitting, but it didn’t work. What I didn’t mention, however, is that I have difficulties with the notion of detachment.

    Not detachment itself, but some notion of distance from suffering, from the world. I have so much trouble already attaching myself to the world—detachment is too easy, dangerously easy.

    But I also know that it’s a particular kind of detachment. It’s not a Zen ‘whatever’, but something else. I just don’t know what that ‘something else’ is.

    We really do need to have a conversation about this.

  2. soundofrain Says:

    We do indeed. Preferably over alcohol. (In moderation, of course.)

    I was confused about that one for a long time. I think I understand better now, and there’s an article coming on the subject.

    In the meantime, rest assured that the goal – insofar as Buddhism can be said to have a “goal” – is to be fully engaged with and in the world.

  3. Shanghai Slim Says:

    I’m sticking with LOLcats.

  4. soundofrain Says:

    You can’t go wrong.

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