I may have gotten my first request for a blog post. Who am I to say no? (I feel so popular all of a sudden!)
The question is what drew me to Jodo Shinshu instead of other, more visible and popular forms of Buddhism in America? Little did you know that’s actually a pretty long and complicated story, so I think this is going to have to a two-part entry. Maybe even a three-parter. And for starters, I’ve got to set the scene, provide some context, talk about things in that long-forgotton era known as the 1990’s.
And what better time to make several long rants about my interest in Buddhism, about my spiritual and religious leanings, than the week before my wedding? It’s not completely unrelated. I mean, I’m not getting married because I’m a Buddhist, but my attitude toward marriage and what I think marriage is all about is certainly influenced by my Buddhist leanings.
So, without further ado…. my interest in Buddhism goes back to 1991 when I was a young, confused, and angry young man fresh out of just dropping out of high school. A community college history teacher I had at the time told us about Buddhism one day, in a completely non-religious context, and basically all she said was that Buddhism’s got Four Noble Truths and an Eight-fold Path to Enlightenment. I was smitten. I mean, there’s a religion that said something I knew to be true that life is suffering and that there were eight simple things you could to do to end suffering? Sweet!
[As an aside, my understanding of suffering, that is to say, duhkha>, has become considerably more mature and nuanced since then. But that’s a different rant for a different time.]
For the next four or five years, my interest in the subject was mostly academic and hobby-like, meaning that whenever I was in a bookstore I found myself gravitating to books on the subject, but mostly intellectual or historical books rather than the fluffy sort of New Agey, self-help sort of books you invariably find mixed in there. And I had no formal training or structure. I never went to a temple or took a class on religious studies until shortly before I moved to San Francisco in 1995. But by then, I was hooked.
When I started at San Francisco State University, I officially changed my major to Philosophy and Religion, and I began studying with Ron Epstein. He’s a Chinese Buddhist specialist, and by now I was interested in Buddhism for more personal reasons. I had started trying to apply Buddhist concepts, practices, and morals to my life. For a while I was a vegetarian. I tried meditation, mantras, and had taken up Tai-chi for spiritual/mental development as well as physical training. But all the while, I was very reluctant to call myself a Buddhist. I’m not sure why exactly. I think, on the one hand, I felt it a little weird to call oneself a Buddhist (or a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu or a whatever) if you never went to temple, that there was something to actually “being” a Buddhist that required you to belong to a community. And on the other hand, I never really saw myself as a “joiner.” I was indi-rock-ex-punker sort of kid. We didn’t “belong” to things!
But by the time my grandmother died in 1997, things had started change. I had a couple of experiences around that time that led me to believe that “being” a Buddhist wasn’t necessarily something that you chose. It felt more like the path was finding me, that there was some intrinsic truth, something invariably right about Buddhism and, like it or not, I was going to be a Buddhist.
So by the summer 1997 I had reluctantly started thinking of myself as a Buddhist, but I rarely called myself one publicly. I still had reservations about not belonging to a community. So I more actively started looking for one to join.
The problem, though, was that nothing would stick. Some communities seemed too “orthodox” for lack of a better word. Sticklers for morals and tradition that left me feeling guilty for not being a “better” Buddhist. I have enough guilt in my life, thank you very much. Other communities seemed to New Agey. I think there’s a certain group of people out there who try to synthesize everything and find some Universal Truth and make Buddhism look like some amalgamation of tantra-veda-crystals-yoga-UFO-watchers-Atlantis-whatever. And while there might not be anything wrong with that, for me a little of everything makes the one big thing too watered down. Other communities seemed rather cold and impersonal at best, pretentious and self-rightous at worst. Lastly, and most importantly, all of these centers placed a premium on meditation as the best means to enlightenment. And I absolutely suck as meditation. Can’t do it. I just sit there feeling uncomfortable thinking about what I should have for dinner and have never had any sort of revelatory experience. I know that’s not “the point,” that you’re just supposed to watch your mind and that there’s something to be said for mental training. But I couldn’t even get that down. Meditation doesn’t even make me feel more focused or relaxed. In fact, the last time I tried meditation, I had to leave the room because I felt nauseous. Really. Not for me.
So I gave up. I figured maybe being a good Buddhist wasn’t for me. But, other things were going on in my life by this point that were taking me away from my path anyway, which is really a story for another time, so I’ll stop for now by saying that by the turn of the century, I started graduate school. This was when I discovered Shinshu. And this was when everything changed.
[this is part one of a three-part series. read the next part.]