Why I chose Buddhism
Quitting my Inheritance.
My choosing a religion to follow is something that surprised me. Growing up in the Midwest, religion was something you were, not something you chose to be. Like the color of your skin, or any other genetic trait inherited from parents, one inherited a religion and that was it. No one older than me even hinted at the possibility of choice.
As I grew with this non-choice of religion, I questioned the veracity of what I was taught. The brand of Christianity I inherited confused me, especially the disparity between the paradigm of “the brotherhood of man” and the way I saw people treating others outside of church. Add to this the widening worldview of an early teen, and one Sunday I find myself listening to a sermon that I can only describe as political. I remember clearly looking about me at my fellow congregants listening raptly to a political message couched in god-speak. I was struck by the appalling way the adults around me unquestioningly soaked in the message, and I wondered for the first time: what business has the church have with secular matters. I’ve wondered this several times since.
The capper to this experience was the sheer inanity of the message: to condemn the peace symbol as unchristian by viewing it as an inverted broken cross. In that era, during the latter years of the Viet Nam conflict, the peace symbol was ubiquitous. As any self-respecting youngster of the time could tell you, the peace sign was symbolic of a missile held within the sphere of the earth, representing the containment of nuclear annihilation. But the people who make decisions for the Missouri Synod Lutherans thought it wise to take a poke at the anti-war parties of the time by preaching what I took as nonsense. That was the last time I sat through a sermon.
I was twelve years old.
Drifting without an Anchor.
For thirty years I drifted through a life of moderate-to-severe emotional pain. Sure, I knew there were many people worse off than I: the evening news industry makes a living off showing us the worst in humanity. I’m happy to say I never made that kind of news, although in retrospect, there were times when I was faced with choices that could have changed that.
My experiences tell me that we are the sum of all the choices that we make. Who we are is directly determined by how we choose. I could have made a few decisions differently and murdered someone, gone to jail for burglary or drug offences, or for rape – just to name some of the trials I have faced. Yet something in my mind stopped me from making those mistakes. Always at the crux of making a life altering decision I felt/heard/knew the wrongness of what I was about to do, and I shied away. This indescribable sensation can be only related as listening to my heart. In retrospect these were key events in my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. To my limited understanding, such experiences cannot be understood in Christian terms; fate doesn’t explain those times when your life is teetering on the outcome of a decision, neither does the concept of divine providence.
Despite the odds, I managed to stay out of trouble. The worst brush with police I endured was from playing guitar at the beach with two others and drawing a crowd of many dozens of people. On this night the alderman was speaking at the local park district field house, and out come the paddy wagons to break up the crowd. I spent a night in the police station at seventeen, too young to incur any lasting damages from this encounter.
One thing I was not able to avoid was an emotional rage complex. During my early adulthood, I couldn’t control my anger, tried unsuccessfully to suppress it with drugs, and blamed it all on outside sources – mainly my upbringing. This was clearly manifested in my work habits. I worked furiously. In a most literal sense, the harder I worked the angrier I got. I’ve never minded working hard, but I couldn’t separate working hard from my anger. This held back my career options for many years without my being aware. Many times I was passed over for promotions, and I never understood why. Fifteen years of my career passed while I spun my wheels of rage and attained few advances for all the experience I gained. If you can’t advance in Retail after ten years you have to start thinking something else is the problem.
Meanwhile, I found a good woman, got married, and started a family. This typical activity is, after all, what people do. Perpetuating the species, as if it needs my help, is what life if for, of so I surmised at the time. Certainly my upbringing and my culture have given me no better things to do with myself. Still, I was not happy. What does one do when they live as they are told to, and their state of mind doesn’t improve? Wasn’t all this supposed to make me happy?
Seeing The Buddha in Me, Seeing the Buddha in Others.
I used to say, “I’m in training to be a crotchety old man”. But in truth I was already a crotchety young man, and I wasn’t particularly enjoying the idea of continuing that trend. I admitted to myself my past approach to living wasn’t working. This was another turning point wherein I followed my heart. After seven years working bookstores and wondering why I was still not happy, I stumbled on the smiling face of H. H. the Dalai Lama gracing the cover of a new book entitled “ the Art of Happiness”. This guy sure looked the part! Given my current outlook, the title intrigued me
So I bought the book, and it indeed changed my life. Co-authored by Howard C. Cutler, a psychologist from Arizona, this book works well as a primer. It offers a unique juxtaposition between Buddhist philosophy and Western psychology and provides a healthy point-counterpoint comparison on the way most of us fumble through life. For me, the Buddhist perspective was an eye opener. It made more sense than the worldview I had, and coincided with the few conclusions I had managed to make about life, that I had the overall feeling of homecoming. I had been looking all my life for the Dharma; my mind had an overwhelming sense of coming home.
The first task before me is learning to like myself, to forgive the imperfections, mistakes, and wrongfulness I have exhibited in the past. This is no easy task for one with low self-esteem. In order to manifest love for others, one must already love ones self. This love is not an expression of ego or selfishness, but an acceptance of the person I really am despite my faults – or perhaps because of them. How can I accept the mean things I have done to people I liked – even to the ones I hated? How can I forgive the ones I loved for the things they perpetrated upon me? How can I absolve my memories, the things I find it uncomfortable to recall? These are questions that must be answered for me to make peace with my life.
<> fundamental point in Buddhism is that all people are inherently good, that we all have Buddha-nature (a fundamental peaceful and aware mind) and are capable of awakening to it. I find that to apply this to others is much easier and to apply this to myself. Another point, called the First Noble Truth, is that all people suffer; indeed, all sentient life is conditioned by suffering. How does this help me? By reminding me that I am not so special in my suffering. My past, which I had previously thought of as uniquely unbearable, is neither special nor unusual. All people suffer, so in this context alone, I am reminded that we are all the same. As I have frequently wished others to compensate for my pain, so I am reminded to make concessions to the pain of others.
The Second Noble Truth builds on this fact, stating that the cause of suffering is our mental clinging to concepts. The list of conceptual clinging is long, but three main concepts recur in Buddhist discussions: Attachment to our concept of self (ego), longing for things to stay the same, and habitually attaching a value to a thought – as in good, bad, or neutral. The aggregation of these mental patterns cause suffering in the individual; because we are taught to think this way, we suffer.
The Third Noble Truth states that suffering can cease, that we each have the ability to end the suffering in our lives. We can reach a state of bliss commonly referred to as Nirvana, which, if we understand it truly, we have always had with us. Nirvana is not a place we travel to, but a state of existence we have always had the power to realize. Anyone can do this at any point in his or her lives.
Lastly,the Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path of method to achieving Nirvana. This path, called by the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, the middle path. This “Eight-fold Path” is a model for training the mind and remodeling behavior that forms the basis for all schools of Buddhism.
Such is the foremost teaching of Buddhism, the four noble truths. I cannot account for how my readers react to them, but upon reading these truths for the first time in the Art of Happiness, I knew my heart had found the philosophy the would transform my life.