greetings from the Finger Lakes
April 3, 2017 at 7:09 am #40645
Hello. Here is my personal Buddhism story. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, surrounded by a wide variety of Christian denominations, although my family was not in any way religious. My parents raised me informally in a mix of rationalism and empiricism without any appeals to supernatural powers and with rather few appeals to abstract principles. On the positive side, I had ample opportunity to study whatever I wanted without fear of contradiction from some authority figure. On the negative side, not only were we socially isolated from most of the community, but moreover I was given little insight (correct or incorrect) into why people behave all the ways they do. Encyclopedias and psychology books provided only so much.
Aside from lacking absolute guidance in how to interact with everyday people, I also lacked guidance in what I should do with myself on a more universal level. I wasn’t taught any particular purpose to life. I wasn’t taught to try to appease any deity. “Don’t be a jerk” isn’t bad advice, but it is rather incomplete. I tried investigating various belief systems around me (sometimes heavily encouraged by proselytizing neighbors), but I always quick found myself hitting barriers of credulity. I don’t intend to disparage any particular religions here; I’ll just say that I couldn’t convince myself to believe various prerequisites to enter some churches.
Given where I lived, there was a very thorough lack of non-Abrahamic religion or philosophy locally available to me. (Even the local college was firmly Christian.) I pre-date public internet, too. As a result, I had only the vaguest inklings of Buddhism, Daoism, or any other school of thought not originating near the Mediterranean.
Quite a few years later, living a bit more eastward, I found Buddhism and Buddhist-inspired things popping up all over the place. While looking for ways to manage stress, I stumbled onto two things more or less simultaneously: New Kadampa Buddhism and secular mindful meditation. In both places, the meditation techniques I was taught were similar, and I was impressed by how quickly meditation could have perceptible effects on my state of mind, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. In “selling” their ideas, the secular meditation group focused on recent scientific research in psychology and neurology, while the Buddhist center was teaching dharma.
To oversimplify, the secular group more or less focused on biofeedback. This was “nifty”, but I found it to be incomplete. The experience was very valuable to me, but I felt there was a lot more to be learned that was beyond the purview of that particular group.
Meanwhile, I listened to some New Kadampa lectures and bought some of their books, curious to know more about this Buddhism. As I read, I found myself nodding along at what seemed to be very intuitive and faultless observations about how the mind works, and I was amazed to think that people had figured out some of these aspects of psychology out so long ago. I was really getting hooked…and then I ran into passages about reincarnation, cosmology, and karma, and I hit the same credulity barriers I had experienced my whole life with Christianity. Personally, it was a big bummer. I was finding a lot of what I found to be valuable information, but I found a lot of things attached to it that I just couldn’t swallow with it.
Since then, I found this experience repeating itself. Thanks to the internet, I found yet another school of Buddhism, full of ideas that resonated with me, but entailing ideas that thoroughly clashed with me. Even if I found myself 70% in agreement and 20% neutral, there was always 10% that was in conflict. Most recently, this happened with Won Buddhism, which is a “modern” Buddhism for modern times. Of all types of Buddhism I have encountered so far, it came the closest to being completely agreeable to me…but reading that people have skin conditions because of things they said in a previous life and such…it was once again jarringly impossible for me to believe. Their insistence on the importance of faith is a big disqualifier. All the while, I’ve kept thinking about the Buddha’s instruction not to believe anything just because so-and-so–even the Buddha himself–said it. Shucks.
So, I can’t be a New Kadampa Buddhist. I can’t be a Won Buddhist. I can’t earnestly join any of the Buddhist communities that seem to be sprouting up all around me these days in Upstate New York. I can agree with many of their teachings, and I can be pleasant with practitioners, but I just can’t quite agree with the whole mission statement. I used to think that it would be disingenuous or even silly to pick and choose ideas from Buddhism while leaving the rest. I used to assume that to be Buddhist required being steeped in a culture that was foreign to me, and therefore that Western Buddhism would be a contradiction. At this point, I’ve read enough to feel certain that there is no such thing as The One True Buddhism, and that it would be no sillier or less genuine for a European tradition to include Buddhist ideas than it was for the Chinese to mix Buddhism with Confucianism or the Japanese to mix Buddhism with Shinto.
In short, I find myself here with a mind opened to the possibility that there is valuable knowledge in Buddhism that I can incorporate into my thoroughly Western life, and that there are ways to acquire and develop this knowledge without having to pretend to believe in some cosmology or concept of long-lasting “soul” that I am basically incapable of believing. I’m certain that some would say that I’m fooling myself, but I’m hoping that I’ve come to the right place.
April 3, 2017 at 11:25 am #40646
You have a lot of experience. I hope you find what you need right here. Welcome
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