I am Buddhist.
Some might think I’m starting a new faith adventure rather late. I’m 51 years old. I was aChristian most of my life. Many of those years I was a devout evangelical zealot. I became disillusioned, my doubts grew stronger, belief grew weaker. Then one day I crashed into the sea of nothing. I crawled up the muddy bank and found a new path, the path of the Buddha. The thing is, I think I’ve been Buddhist all my life but Christianity got in the way.
My family don’t quite know how to take my Buddhism. They’re all typical evangelical protestant Christians. Christians have many misconceptions about Buddhists. My wife is skeptical but I’ve been bringing her along for a couple years now, explaining what Buddhists believe. She’s getting used to the idea. I believe she appreciates the positive changes in my life that have occurred since I’ve been devoting myself to following Buddha.
I see my siblings only rarely and they dance around the subject of religion. They were impressed with the strength my new found faith provided a few months ago as I dealt with my dying mother and served as her primary caretaker. To be honest, I was surprised at myself!
Recently my mother-in-law asked my wife why she “let” me worship Buddha. He’s a “False God!” I think it’s a little funny but sad, too, that Christians think such things about Buddha. No doubt all kinds of weird ideas are rambling around in my mother-in-law’s head about her strange son in law. I’ve always been somewhat eccentric but this thing probably takes the cake for her.
It’s disappointing that my family doesn’t accept my new found purpose but I don’t really expect them to. Having been a Christian I know the leaps they’d have to make to do so. Christianity is a closed system. To accept a Buddhist on an equal level would would allow a crack in the box. It’s a frightening thought to Christians who already struggle with conflicting doctrine and unfulfilled promises.
I’ve been on a quest for Truth for as long as I can remember. I began as a Christian evangelical zealot and moved through various phases of Christianity punctuated by periods of disappointment and confusion caused by my own inability to live up to the ideals I believed in or the abject refusal of so many Christians to follow the true teaching of Christ.
My first introduction to Buddhism was in college where I had a class on Japan and another on Eastern Political Thought. The latter class was taught by my all-time favorite professor, Dr. Richard Kim. He used to say, “my father was the best Christian I’ve ever known… and he was Buddhist!” I repeat Dr. Kim’s words often. I’ve never forgotten how he’d say that and smile, knowing how crazy he made the Christians who populated his classes. I dropped into his office often to talk. He told me how students would come by and try to convert him to Christianity. At the time I was a Christian and we had excellent conversations about how some Christians act, about truth, and about life.
I reached a crisis of faith a few years ago. The Christian faith I’d followed so many years crashed around my feet. It’s too long a story to relate here. Suffice it to say for a few months life was extremely difficult. I may not even have survived the period were it not for my children. I realized I had a responsibility to teach them Truth. But I did not know it! I started looking for it.
I researched the Bible, Christianity’s cornerstone, and found it faulty. I knew I could no longer accept the doctrines of a church founded upon a book that has been mis-read, misrepresented, misconceived and misinterpreted and one that was hardly accurate or complete. I looked at the other Theist religions but they were no more appealing than Christianity, all built up from the same foundation as Christianity or pantheist, something I could never follow.
Most religions deal with the here-after, with spiritual things, with life beyond what is known. They virtually ignore life here and now. Though ethics and morality is a part of most religions they take a back seat to spirituality. The goal is heaven because this world sucks. Such is the attitude of Theism. But all those religions do is speculate. There is no proof.
I didn’t want dreams about the great beyond. I wanted concrete answers to problems right now, today, this life, this world. I found them in the teachings of Buddha.
Buddhism’s focus is upon what we as humans can and must do right now, today. It presents a path to follow that will lead to a better life now and later. It makes sense. It’s logical. It’s tangible. It places everything spiritual to the side, puts responsibility squarely upon the individual, requires no dependence upon spirits or spiritual guidance. Most amazing of all, to me at least, is that Buddha’s teaching on what is right is identical to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. This is what intrigued me the most.
I believe the Bible was heavily edited a few centuries after Jesus lived. It is an inconsistent and confusing book because it is contrived rather than “spirit given.” Little remains of the true teachings of Jesus but what words are recorded in the Gospels (and backed up by apocryphal books such as the Gospel of Thomas) reveal a teacher of truth who spoke the same things as Buddha. Concepts of heaven and hell and many other doctrines found in the Bible were, I believe, put there by church leadership after Constantine for the purpose of turning the open and free beliefs of Jesus into a religion that could be controlled from the top down.
The similarities between Jesus’ teaching and Buddha’s teaching drew me towards Buddhism. Month after month I read about Buddha and Buddhism. The shackles of Christianity eventually fell away and the “false god” fears and irrational attitudes Christianity had fused into my mind also started to melt away. I began calling myself a “Buddhist Jesus person” in 2007, explaining that I chose to follow the combined teachings of Jesus (as found in the Gospels and apocryphal texts) and of Buddha. I think I was being more self-serving than sincere about the Jesus part, an attempt to navigate the closed world of Christianity that I live in here on the buckle of the Bible Belt.
All things Christian continued to fall away and I turned more and more to study the teaching of Gautama. My mother took very ill in summer of 2008. She spent much of her time in the hospital from July to November when she passed away. Unlike my dad’s death which came suddenly and unexpectedly hers was painful and lingering. I was forced to look at death issues and examine what I believed.
I took up the responsibility of continual care of my mom in the hospital from mid-October. I literally lived in her room with her for the last month she was with us. During that time I read and contemplated more about Buddhism and Buddha’s teaching, especially on impermanence and suffering. By the time mom passed away I came to admit there was nothing of the Christian belief left within me. All vestiges of Christianity died when my mom passed away.
Mom had a difficult time. She had cancer in her kidney that spread into her intestines and beyond. She had a blocked intestine, endured surgery to unblock it that failed, and became psychotic for a while. She was very unlike herself for a few weeks, cursing and fighting and generally making life miserable for all who came close. She was not her sweet, kind and loving self!
I can’t say exactly how but I found strength to care for her. It was a terrible ordeal for us. She could not eat or consume anything by mouth. She had a tube in her stomach most of the time. She suffered severe pain. Eventually she was moved to inpatient Hospice where I was by her side until she breathed her last.
When my dad passed away I took it badly. I went on a drunken binge for several days. My wife and family worried that I might not fare too well when mom died, too, especially since I’d been with her day and night for so long. But I found strength in Buddhist teaching. I understood everything much better. Her death was the catalyst that turned me entirely away from Christianity and towards Buddhism.
Like I said, all of my family are evangelical Christians. My brother is an ordained minister who gives a lot to his work even though he is badly disabled. My youngest sister is one of those when-the-doors-are-open participants in one of the largest Baptist churches in our town. My oldest sister is uneducated and lives a simple backwoods Christian faith in a home where fighting and abuse is commonplace. They all believed mom was gone “on to heaven” but still they struggled with her death. I mourned her loss but found wonderful peace and assurance in the teachings of Buddha. My younger sister’s son, a staunch right wing Christian, commented on how well I was able to deal with mom’s situation. Though that young man despises my political views and believes my religious views to be heretical Buddha’s teaching working within me helped me gain his respect at least briefly.
A couple months ago I picked up a book called What Buddhists Believe. I found it in Half Price Books, of all places, though it had been printed and distributed by the Texas Buddhist Association. It is one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read. I have marked passages on almost every page. Though there are a few parts I may not accept entirely the Buddhism it presents is a belief system that is as near perfect as any belief system can be. The book, written by K. Sri Dhammananda, was the push I needed to launch myself into a Buddhist life completely.
There were times in the past few years when I did not want to live. I had dark days of physical pain, emotional pain, and mental anguish. In the past four years I lost my dreams, lost faith, developed a debilitating illness and my mom passed away after a long and painful decline. There were other problems to deal with on top of these. Rising up through the tangled mess that was my life came the teachings of Buddha. Rather than falling completely apart after the past few years’ multiple ordeals I find I am more together and at peace than I have ever been. Buddha’s teaching has been the glue that held everything together.
If I believed in miracles I might say that the transformation I’m still going through is little short of miraculous. I know it’s not a miracle. At least not in the spiritual sense. It is miraculous in how choosing to follow Buddha works to change one’s life. Buddha does not say, “pray for guidance” or “wait on the spirit” or “God will lead” or in any way imply change comes in any manner other than by my choosing to follow the right path. How I live my life is entirely up to me. Change comes as a result of a logical process that I choose to enter into. It’s not spiritual mumbo-jumbo, it’s natural law at work.
All my life I struggled. I begged God and got no help. I searched the Bible and found no answers. I looked to Christians and saw how they either struggled worse than I or just didn’t even try. Christianity never worked. It never made sense. In the end it didn’t hold up when I needed it the most. When I examined it closely to see why it didn’t work it crumbled in my hands like an old parchment. I had to let it go.
There’s no pressure to live right in Buddhism. There’s no hell for those who fail nor heaven for those who do “good”–at least not in the way Christians perceive of heaven. There’s no god to push me along, no devil to tempt me, no spirit to guide. The struggle is within, not without. My own selfishness and ignorance are the only hindrances I have. The words of Buddha are pointers and excellent references but the steps I take are chosen by me. I take them at my own pace. The road ahead gets clearer at every step but each step is still a step into the unknown. Even so, now I know. Now I understand. The unknown is only fearsome when we allow our imagination to create monsters in our head. Every step along the path of right living is a step towards fulfillment. I will live Right… because I choose to.
Dhammananda writes, “…the Buddha did not ridicule any sincere existing religious belief or practice. He appreciated the value in many where he found Truth and he even gave a better explanation of their beliefs. That is why he once said Truth must be respected wherever it is….” (What Buddhists Believe, pp 122-123) Though I can no longer follow Christianity I do respect the teaching of Jesus at its core. Peel the doctrines all away and you can find a man with a heart and mind in complete alignment with Buddha’s teaching. Thus any Christian who bores to the center of his or her religion and discovers and follows the teachings of Jesus is worthy of great respect.
One can believe anything one wishes about life before or life after this one. There is no proof any belief is valid; not Buddha’s and not beliefs of Christianity. There is valid proof, however, that the teachings of Buddha work in this life. People who follow Buddha’s teaching do lead happier, more fulfilling lives. They bring positive change to this world. One can follow Buddha unhindered by worries of the past, concerns of the future, or trepidation of what comes after death. Buddha’s teaching is based upon our abilities, our mind, our faculties. We do the best we can do and that is sufficient. There’s no need to wait on spiritual guidance. Nothing holds us back but our own selfishness and ignorance.
I’ve been looking for Buddha all my life. Now that I’ve found him, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get busy. There’s a lot to catch up on.
Buddhism. Try it! You’ll like it!
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