The cost of being Buddhist
I have to pay a price to be a Buddhist. There’s a price to pay for being Buddhist in East Texas. There’s a price to pay for being Buddhist in America, too. Is it worth it? We shall see.
It’s easy to be a Christian. I should know. Being a Christian is convenient. There are so many choices! America is the Hundred-and-one flavors of Christianity store. There’s a smorgasbord of denominations and among those an assortment of churches at varying levels of activity, holding various levels of devotion with assorted kinds of membership. America has predominantly white, predominantly black, and predominately Hispanic or in the city predominantly what ever you happen to be congretations. There are liberal churches and conservative churches, big and small churches, fancy and plain churches, ancient edifices and modern cathedrals. Hurry, hurry, hurry, step right up and choose your flavor!
I have over the years attended and been a member of a considerable number of different kinds of churches. As a Baptist, Methodist and Assembly of God I’ve attended huge old venerable congregations, tiny little country churches, popular churches, store front churches, and assorted traditional churches. I’ve visited on various occasions even more churches. I’ve been music director, singer, evangelist, teacher, bus driver, you name it. It’s so easy to find a church!
Not only is there a church on every corner but society itself in America is soaked through and through with Christianity. Even though there are many different religions practiced of every imaginable kind Christian mythology and phraseology permeates everything from presidential speeches to city council meetings to community activities. References to God are even emblazoned on American currency.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with America being a nominally “Christian” society. We’re fortunate that our original leadership recognized the importance of keeping religion out of government in a formal way, too. The problem is how Christianity is so exclusionary and prejudiced against all other religions and how it encourages such attitudes in believers. Another problem is that while there’s no “official” state religion, the Christianity of our leadership seeps into politics like rain through a leaky roof. Politicians try to avoid specific religious references but still invoke a generic “God” and pray in a political setting. As a Christian I did not find anything “wrong” with the practices mentioned. As a Buddhist, they bother me.
Because of the prevalence of Christianity in America, the “Christianese” spoken by American politicians, the Christian mind set of America’s majority, true and devout members of other religions face an up hill battle. Depending upon the particular religion, some, more than others, find themselves derided, condemned and rejected by the majority. Though less so in some communities it is absolutely the case in the rural South or in more conservative communities around the nation. And of course an assortment of religions, “false-beliefs” and “heresy” receive a direct mention in pulpits around the nation as the culprits causing the masses to go to hell. Sometimes they’re even worse, they are terrorists!
Being a Buddhist in a Christian country is probably similar to being a Christian in a Buddhist country. It’s the odd religion imposing upon local custom. In America Buddhism, especially, raises eyebrows in Christian circles. Assorted far-out versions of Christianity like Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other “deist” religions like Judaism and even Islam, do not get quiet the treatment because “at least they believe in God” and “they are not idol worshipers.” Of course Buddhists are not “idol worshipers” either but because of ignorance Christians make assumptions. Even I made those assumptions.
I must admit it was the statues of Buddha that threw me for a long time. Since there are so many and since Buddhists always appear to “worship” before them, that old “no false gods” thing echoed through my brain, strains of the classic movie “The Ten Commandments” where Charlton Heston Moses comes down to find the Hebrews dancing around a golden cow. But Buddha’s words appealed to me so strongly and were so similar to what Jesus actually said that I pushed past my reluctance and dug deeper.
Eventually I learned that statutes of Buddha are mere reminders of his greatness not too different than statues of America’s heroes, statesmen and presidents that dot the land or even all those crosses and crucifixes in churches. Now that I understand and have committed to Buddhism I not only follow the teachings and respect Buddha but I have the trappings, including a little statue. The only thing I don’t do–because I can’t due to where I live–is attend a Buddhist temple. I have become one of those people I used to warn others about. Now I know how they feel.
In a city finding friendship among like-minded people is not so daunting. If someone remains in solitude in urban areas it’s because of personal choice or personality. In rural communities, however, like where I live, like-minded people are not so easy to find–if they exist at all. I’m not so sure they do in this town. Christian leaders condemn Buddhism without really understanding it at all. Christians, devout or superficial, fear it, believing it might “rub off” or that in some way they might be contaminated by it.
Christians find the trappings of Buddhism, the statues and meditation practice and incense, etc., distasteful. Of course Christians have always been snobs, lifting their noses at “drunkards” and “sinners” of all types. But drunkards and sinners hardly rate the treatment given to “worshipers of false gods!” It’s fine to rub shoulders with Christians in social settings, even in our town, but it’s considered impertinent to mention Buddha. Do that and Christians turn away as if you’ve uttered a string of expletives and ended your diatribe with references to their mother and canines! Talk about the weather, the state of the union, even politics and opposing views but do not expect an intelligent conversation with a Christian about Buddhism. (I speak more of protestant Christians than Catholic since the Vatican has a dialog with Buddhists.)
Even with family members I get the most unkind responses at the very mention of anything Buddhist. You’d think my family would be at least a little curious why the guy who used to pound them with Bible verses and insist God said, meant, and demanded such and such is now a devout Buddhist but no, they are not curious. Or at least they’re not curious enough to have a meaningful conversation. THEY think it might rub off, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t ever remember actually meeting a Buddhist when I was a Christian (nor since, actually) but I do not believe I would have iced them down with my shoulder at the mere mention of Buddha. My family does me that way though.
The price of following Buddha, then, is being the odd person out, suffering through prayers, dealing with limitless references to “God” in society. It is enduring all kinds of Christian points of view around my family. But worse, it is also not being able to share in the least what brings joy and fulfillment to my heart and soul. (I use the term “soul” loosely, since Buddha said we don’t have one!)
My wife, too, brings a Christian attitudes to our table. I had to ease into things, explaining repeatedly along the way, so she didn’t totally freak out over what I do. I explained how that my little Buddha statue is merely a reminder of a great teacher and not an idol to worship. The main advantage I’ve had with her is that she’s been able to see how my new found path has begun to change me. She and my kids recognize some of my bad ways, my hot temper, etc., are being replaced with more kindness, respect, understanding and selflessness. So at home I have an easier time of things. But still, like my wife once hid my liquor when her parents were coming over (they’re nominal holiness Nazarene) she now worries about me bringing up Buddha around them. It’s just another one of my eccentric “bad habits,” something to tolerate because she loves me.
But I have made inroads of understanding with my wife. We even have occasional formal lessons on Buddha’s basic teaching. I’ve made a few inroads with my family, too. The strength I found from Buddha’s teaching when my mom died made an impression on the family. Unfortunately my family is caught between loyalty to family and loyalty to their religion. Since most of them are of the devout type I rate lower on the scale than their church. Truth, they continue to believe, comes from their church. I am just “confused.”
Another somewhat unexpected consequence of choosing Buddha is online relationships. Over the years I’ve turned to friends online since I’ve had so few in this real world. It’s not that I don’t like people so much but rather that I just cannot play the roll I’d have to in order to have friends locally. I cannot in good conscience be a part of prejudice, self-righteousness, and clannish attitudes. I am so far removed from the good-ol-boy way of thinking that I may as well be from Mars as far as the community is concerned.
Even before I became a Buddhist my point of view, eccentricities, and politics were such that I knew I would not be accepted as I am in most any crowd around here so I stayed to myself. It is not worth it to me to hide or lie about how I believe just so I can hang around people. I’ve never wanted to be popular. I have wanted friends but a true friend is one who will accept you as you are. I have yet to find anyone with such an open mind in these pineywoods. This is, of course, not related to my religion. It’s just a personality quirk.
In the absence of local friends, then, I’ve sought out friends online. Now that I’m a Buddhist I’m unable to make connections as I could before and even the friends I have are skeptical of my Buddhism, to say the least. They, too, lift the icy shoulder and have no interest in that which gives me great joy and understanding: my Buddhism.
Things are different now than they used to be online. When the net was young a collection of websites popped up offering a great opportunity for people to find friends nearby and around the world. It was terrific for folks such as myself who for whatever reasons could not find friends locally or who just wanted to learn more about other people in other places. But then a few ugly clouds started filling the cyber-sky. These days it’s virtually impossible to find real friends online. This is especially true for a 50-something year old man who is a housekeeper and homeschool teacher and of all things, a Buddhist!
The places where one could once find friends have evaporated in the steam created by a million sexual encounters a day. It is fascinating that Christians will seek out other people online, even other Christians, for very un-Christian activities. Married or not Christians seek Christians for sex but they won’t strike up a decent conversation with a Buddhist! Go figure. Everyone my age is married-and-looking, about to be divorced, are divorced, or just forever single and searching for the perfect bed partner with the right equipment. Having a brain is, apparently, entirely optional.
My search for friendship has fallen flat because any place I might go looking for friends turns out to be a playground of the sexually promiscuous. Who is going to believe a 51 year old guy is online just to find friends and not *really* actually, secretly looking for a sexual encounter?
There may be young kids (anybody under 40 is included in that group!) really seeking friends but they live in a different world than mine already. Almost to a person anybody my age is either online looking for a replacement for the one they’re living with or the one they just discarded. How sad. How tragic that shut-ins and secluded by situation grownups like myself have no place to go without being considered a sex hound or (if I dare drop a note to someone younger or of the same gender) a pervert or gay. But, alas, even the very few who do seem to be seeking the same thing as I, just friends, when the “B” word is discovered in my profile I am dropped like a hot potato.
There are all those discussion boards and blogs out there but how many folks on those are looking for friends? I’d suggest very few. Blogs and boards by their nature attract the types who just have to be heard or think they know everything. Either they already have the ear of a couple dozen friends or they are reclusive by choice or because nobody can stand to listen to them. I make massive assumptions, of course. I could be wrong. This is just how it appears to me.
It’s likely that you’ve asked why I would even try to seek out friends online, why I spend time looking or searching, why not merely settle onto my cushion and meditate all day long? I can answer that.
Perhaps some day I will do exactly that, become a recluse whose days are filled with incense, candles, crossed legs and quiet reflection. For now, though, I am still human. Like every other human I enjoy at least an occasional conversation with a grownup. And like every other Buddhist human I would enjoy the opportunity to talk about Buddha and Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, and all those marvelous things. But unless I just abandon my family and run off to a city or a monastery I’m probably not going to have those conversations. Christian prejudice, social custom and local male attitudes being what they are it’s unlikely I’ll ever find a Buddhist friend or a person amenable to being friends with one. So I go online and run to and fro like that proverbial man looking for the pearl of great price.
For me, then, the price of becoming a Buddhist has been very steep. Already isolated and lonely I find myself almost entirely cut off from the world. I may as well be a monk or a recluse. For all practical purposes I am one already. The price of becoming a Buddhist in this household, in this town, in this region and in this country is a greater sense of loneliness, of being out of place, and a greater longing for true companionship.
Buddha, like Jesus, teaches that we should be content in whatever situation we find ourself. Buddha goes further to teach detachment, that we need to learn to “separate ourselves from our environment and its influence.” (source: http://www.experiencefestival.com/detachment) Rather than flopping around like a fish I should merely accept my solitude and use it to my advantage, taking the time to study and learn more and become a better Buddhist. This I do as much as I can. Still, I really would love to have a chance to talk about what I’ve learned and to learn from others.
Way up above I asked if the price of being Buddhist is worth it. As I said before, I cannot be a “superficial” religious person, shopping for feel-good beliefs or picking up religious ideas like picking up juicy sweets from a buffet table. Religion has to mean something to me. It has to speak to my heart and my head. It has to make sense and it has to “work” for me. I turned away from Christianity because it was not there when I needed it. I turned to Buddhism because it is everything I’ve searched for.
My life has been a struggle. I’ve struggled to understand people, the world, the universe, and myself. I struggled to find my place in this world. When my faith in Christianity crumbled I developed a fear of death I’d never had before, another struggle. About the same time I came down with physical ailments. I deal constantly with undiagnosed illness, daily pain, an inability to engage in many common activities without hurting. On top of all this, maybe because of it, I’ve also had to battle depression. The First Noble Truth, life is suffering, can easily be validated by my own life!
In the blessed tradition and teaching of Buddhism I have found all the answers I’ve sought. Every day is a little brighter as I learn more and move closer to what Buddha taught and study the great words of his followers. I find strength and purpose in Buddhism even as I have merely skimmed the surface of it so far. Life makes much more sense now. I understand myself and why I had so much difficulty in the past. I am able to deal with my pain, my fear of death, and my depression. Buddha is no savior, he was just a man. Though he himself denies any divine inspiration, however, I believe if there ever was such a thing he received it. His teaching is so simple, so clear, so obvious, so functional and so beautiful that it has become the salvation I could find nowhere else.
Life is suffering. Suffering is caused by selfishness and attachment to desire. There is a way out of suffering. There’s even a way to alleviate the suffering I endure because of my attachment to the desire to have friends. How cool is that?
I have chosen the path of the Buddha. I will not turn back. Is it worth it? What do you think?
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