Bad Influences: Buddhism

“Bad Influences” is a segment in which the author pays tribute to the people and texts that contributed in specific and memorable ways to the decline of her Christian faith--or, depending on how one looks at it, the burgeoning of her authentic self. As you’ve probably figured out, the title is somewhat ironic.

    Like just about everyone else, I’ve know about Buddhism by name for as long as I can remember. It is considered a "major world religion”, after all. But it wasn’t until I was at seminary that I actually began to learn about the tenets, practices, and history of this specific tradition, or set of traditions.

    To be clear, it wasn't seminary itself that taught me about Buddhism; the school I went to was entirely Judeo-Christian in content and lens. Rather, I got my start in learning about it from a housemate who had grown up in Thailand. Around the same time that I was hearing about it from him, another close friend who was also raised conservative and Evangelical (though in the deep South, so that’s a whole other ballgame) began to talk about how he was being influenced by his studies of Buddhism as he attempted to augment and diversify his own grown-up faith life. The information must have stuck in me somewhere, because when I was finally ready to leave Christianity behind but still wanted to maintain a habit of self-reflection and enlightenment-oriented practices, I turned to Buddhism.

    I do not specifically identify myself as “Buddhist” or claim to be a part of Buddhism--the prospect of doing so feels fairly feigned; essentially, I’d be a poser. That said, though I don’t have the energy to commit to a sangha so soon after finding release from the commitment of the church, I do look to Buddhist teachings on a regular basis to focus my mind, ground me emotionally, and satisfy the more mystically-oriented cravings that tend to arise in my life. What I like about Buddhism in these regards, as opposed to Christianity, is that it is not theistic. There is no anthropomorphic, ego-driven God toward whom a Buddhist is directed to look as the cause or source of change in oneself (at least not the in the traditions I’ve studied). Rather, what I’ve found as I’ve exposed myself to this new ‘system’ is a collection of habits and practices--things one can physically do--that, over time, cause a change in one’s mental and emotional experience of the world.

    Though Buddhism itself does not necessarily offer scientific explanations as to why its suggested behaviors seem to have such practical effects, it is clear (at least to me) that those explanations of what's 'really going on' are welcome and celebrated. There is nothing supernatural happening beyond the scrim of the material world--though of course things may be mysterious, in their way, to the lay observer. One is merely using time-tested techniques, whether or not one can explain exactly how those techniques work, to free oneself from unnecessary rancor toward the imperfect world.

    This is another thing I enjoy about Buddhism in contrast to Christianity: in Christianity, suffering is somehow seen as both inherently unjust (see my post about death here) and as highly desirable insofar as it somehow works away our imperfections and sins (a ‘beauty is pain’ sort of mentality, I guess). In Buddhism, on the other hand--as far as I understand it--suffering is seen as inherently inevitable but not, in and of itself, virtuous. Similarly, there is no guilt woven into the fabric of Buddhism. A person might bring their shame tendencies to the practice, and work with and through those issues over many years, but in Christianity there is much more of an emphasis on right and wrong, both morally and practically. It’s exhausting! Buddhism, while potentially intense (those Zen monks are hardcore), feels to me like an open pasture of tall grass on a sunny day compared to the dim solitary cell that is the internal state of the striving Jesus Freak.

    In terms of the sources I used to educate myself about Buddhism, there are only a few at this point. Aside from talking to friends who have extensive experience with it, I’ve read some Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron. I also regularly listen to the Audio Dharma podcast, which is put out by the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California. I recommend checking out these authors and teachers; they will open your mind to the existence of a new way, even if you decide not to take it in the end.