“Conversion” to Buddhism

 “How did you feel about transferring from one religion to another?  Have you found any conflicts between the two religions?  What have you learned from Zen Buddhism in contrast to Catholicism?” 

These were questions asked of me by a student in my World Religions class at the Des Moines Area Community College.  I hope that sharing my response here could be helpful to more than this one thoughtful student.

To give a little context, I was raised Catholic (on mother’s side) and agnostic (on father’s side).  Thankfully, I was spared speeches of fire and brimstone.  I feel for those who experienced the negative aspects of religion – especially being forced to think or behave in ways that were not chosen, or did not come naturally, or based in fear.  For many, the mere word “religion” is a potential trigger.  This is really unfortunate because the study of religions can be healing and transformative.  What often happens instead is that people just reject religion altogether, and are understandably suspect of those who express a positive experience with religion.

I had a fairly positive experience of Catholicism, and I did not embrace the teachings of the Buddha as a rejection of Catholicism but as a continuation of my life’s journey.  I had questions that I did not feel had a place in Catholicism:  does God exist?  Why am I here?  What should I do?  It’s not that they don’t have a place in Christianity, it’s that I did not see that they had a place, and did not feel comfortable asking them to any authorities within the Church.

I turned to people who called themselves “Buddhists” because I felt the freedom to ask them those questions, and not necessarily be supplied with a ready response.  The Zen teacher I studied under actually encouraged such questions saying that, “this is your koan.” (A Koan is an enigmatic question that can’t be answered with the intellect alone.)  She encouraged being in the mystery, sitting with it, not trying to solve it with my head.  Because of this – the space to both question my life’s purpose and simultaneously find refuge in the ritual of meditation – I immediately took to Zen.

I also came to my Buddhist teachers with a fair amount of suffering.  Not suffering of a profound nature.  Just the ordinary suffering of a romantic relationship that went sour.  I was getting more involved with the use of illegal drugs and alcohol as a means to deal with this kind of suffering as well as the existential suffering of yearning for a deeper understanding of who I am and what I should do.  I didn’t think I would benefit from simply confessing my sins of taking intoxicants and of out of wedlock sex to a Catholic priest.  Right or wrong, I had emotions that needed to be dealt with.  Sitting in stillness and silence gave those big feelings a place to be.  I did not need to be afraid of feeling shame, anger, confusion, nor did I need to act on them.  I could simply watch these feelings as they coursed through my body/mind.

When I met my teacher, 4:15pm in the meditation hall of Bucknell University’s Rooke Chapel, I felt relief in an hour.  Just her presence and sitting in silence was healing.  It was not a high, nor did it answer my questions, but I had a sense of equanimity and of inner control.  It was as though my teacher pointed out where the gears of my own mind were, and how to operate them.  I had never learned that I could influence my own mind simply by sitting still, being, and watching my breath. 

Our educational institutions in this country teach us about things in the external world.  This is important.  We need to have a basic understanding of how the universe works though, biology, chemistry, physics and math.  We need to understand history and economics.  However, this is only half of what we need to know.  We need to learn about our interior landscape – our mind, breath, feelings, and body- as well, and how the external world connects with our internal world.

Even the formal study of religion, whether it be our own religion or that of another, does not require us to take stock of our own mind.  We can study religion as any other object, such as a table, a rock, or an ant colony, without the feeling that we are studying our self, or worse, putting people into categories they may themselves object to.  However, it’s only when we encounter the subject of religion as the study of our self, of the way our own mind works, that we begin to discover its relevance to our personal life as well as the external world.  Before that happens, though, we remain as an observer with no creative hand in it, nor a sense of belonging to something bigger than our mentally constructed world.

If we want to understand an authentic “conversion” experience, then we need to first look at the motivation for why someone like myself would “convert”.  As an aside, the word “conversion” (or as my student said, “transfer”) itself is a problem because it comes from a practice among Christians of converting people to Christianity.  I did not convert to something called “Buddhism” in the same way that a non-Christian becomes saved through Christ.  I simply took interest in the Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha.  When I put them into practice, they worked to alleviate suffering, immediately in many cases.  The Dharma made logical sense to me.  It was not a matter of taking faith in an external figure, as it was simply taking greater responsibility for my own life.

Returning to the question of motivation – what motivates someone to learn something about themselves that they’ve never learned before?  Suffering.  Suffering, if we are totally honest, is at the heart of learning anything.  If suffering is not motivating the learning process, then no learning is really taking place.  Both Jesus and Buddha wielded immense power to attract and influence vast numbers of people both during and after their lifetimes.  They both had different ways of responding to a time of intense suffering on the social and personal levels.  They lived lives attempting to respond humanely to that suffering.  We can learn something from them here.

Buddha and Jesus both practiced austerities and were tested before they began their ministries.  Matthew 4: 1 – 11 gives an account of Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and being tempted by greed and power.  This story demonstrates the human side of Jesus.  He was able to be tempted by Satan, and he had to wrestle with and reconcile his own desire for power over people.  Jesus had to do some internal work before he could begin his ministry.

There is a similar story about the Buddha being tempted by Mara (the Buddhist name for the devil) prior to his Enlightenment.  In the case of the Buddha, he nearly starved himself to death before realizing a path of moderation.  He, too, was tempted by greed, hate, and delusion to give up his quest for complete perfect Enlightenment.

Both these teachers demonstrate the need to know our self and our own motivations before we carry out any endeavor – religious or secular.  The traditions that cropped up around them, Christianity and Buddhism are what they are now referred to as, have customs of training its adherents and not allowing them to teach until they are able to display some degree of being settled with themselves, and some degree of humility.

Introspection is essential to the successful study of any Religion.  We need to know what our underlying motives are, and we need to question if we are influenced by greed, power, or hate in any way.  What do we want to get out of a Religion?  Are we genuinely trying to understand cultures/religions, or are we just trying to box whole cultures into categories that they themselves would not choose?  Are we studying in order to justify our own feelings of superiority over another culture or religion?

I chose to study with a Buddhist teacher because I was in pain.  While I feel it’s important to be aware of our interior landscape, we also need a guide along the way.  This is particularly important when we first get started with a practice of meditation.  The guide can take many forms, including the practicing of the 5 precepts:  not to kill, lie, steel, commit sexual misconduct, or take intoxicants.  To not have a guide is risky because we can easily succumb to the dictates of our own ego.  Without being held accountable to some higher standards, we can easily fool ourselves that we are practicing Buddhism (or Christianity). 

I lived and breathed the same air as my teacher and American Sangha for a long time.  I purposely put myself in this situation so that I could be shaped by her as well as the Japanese Zen tradition.  I lived in Zen temples in Japan and learned directly from Japanese Zen Masters, as well as the many Japanese peers that helped to guide me.  I am grateful for having had so many opportunities to study deeply, and I have been profoundly changed by these encounters.  I no longer consider myself a Catholic in the way that I thought of being Catholic when I was 14 years old, and at the same time I’m not a Zen Master like one would find if they travelled to Japan.  I’m a human being both literally and figuratively impressed by both Zen and Christianity.  What religion am I?

We change and evolve over the course of our life.  I came to a Zen teacher at a time in my own evolution of thinking about God, and she helped me to live with the questions I was asking, and to see the world as whole and complete as it is, outside of the category of “religion”.  As I continue to explore the Dharma, I feel a deep desire and commitment to share the healing aspects with the wider society – whether Christian, atheist, secular, etc.  The practice of Zen does not make you into a Buddhist.  It only makes you more of who you are already.  Christians become better Christians.  Jews become better Jews.  Agnostics become better agnostics.  Humans become more themselves.

Questions to reflect on:

  1. Can you benefit from Buddhism without converting to Buddhism?
  2. If you do “convert” to Buddhism, do you have to give up your former religion?
  3. What has been your journey with religion?  Positive?  Negative?  Neither?  How has your own understanding of Religion and God evolved since you were a child?
  4. What questions have you been afraid to explore because of fear of asking them?
  5. What does it feel like in your body to live with your life’s questions, not having them answered, just being with them?
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