the long buddhist rant goes to grad school

[this is part two of a three-part series. read part one.]

In the fall of 1998, I started looking for graduate schools. I had gotten a degree in Philosophy and Religion and was — seriously — working at a coffee shop. I knew I wanted to teach, I knew I wanted to teach Buddhist or Religious Studies at the college level, and I knew that meant grad school. In researching different programs and getting all my letters of recommendation in order, I went back to SF State and talked with Prof. Epstein. He told me to check out the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley because they had an affiliated program he was working with that had a Buddhism focus. I said, great.

When I checked out the GTU’s website, I saw they had a Buddhist studies program through the Institue of Buddhist Studies. This, ironically, was not the program Prof. Epstein was referring to. I didn’t know that at the time, so I just applied to the IBS/GTU and was all set to go to grad school in the fall of 2000.

[For some context here: the GTU is a consortium of different, mostly Christian, seminaries. When you apply at the M.A. level, you apply through one of the GTU’s member schools. One of these is the Pacific School of Religion, a Unitarian school which is affiliated with the Institute of World Religions run out of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. This was the program Prof. Epstein wanted me to attend. I discovered, in contrast, the Institute of Buddhist Studies (in the intervening seven years, by the way, I’ve become a master of the acronym) which I think is pretty funny. Prof. Epstein lead me to a place he never intended.]

After several years of exploring different Buddhist schools — Zen of the Zen Center variety, Shambhala and other Tibetan derivatives, Chinese Ch’an, even Nichiren — and never feeling really at home, I went to the IBS in the fall of 2000 for my first orientation feeling wholly unprepared for graduate school and knowing almost nothing about Shinshu. And when I walked into the building that day, I remember feeling completely welcomed, embraced, like coming home. But specifically, like when you go back to your parent’s home for Christmas after you’ve been living somewhere else, far away, for several years. There’s a familiarity to everything, it is your parent’s house, but things are different enough because maybe your mom bought a new sofa, and since you don’t live there anymore, you’re sort of a guest, but still family. That’s how I felt my first day at grad school in the company of Shin Buddhists.

Which was, it goes without saying, a drastically different experience from other Buddhist communities I’d been to. I think what struck me the most was how totally normal everyone seemed. How everyone seemed like ordinary, normal, everyday people, not “Buddhists.” Which is damned refreshing if you think about it given how much time Buddhists talk about being “just people” but often walk around acting like something better than people. (That sounds harsh, even to me, but at the time this was an experience I’d had one too many times, unfortunately. I’m over it now. I’m feeling much better, thank you!)

Now, I didn’t fall to the floor that very same day and convert, take me sweet Buddha! I was well aware of the fact that I had enrolled in grad school to be a grad student, to train myself to become an academic, not a religious. But the IBS (and the GTU in general) is a funny place. It’s got a serious academic bent, but it’s also a consortium of seminaries, meaning they’re training folks to be priests and ministers and monks and nuns (radical, politically engaged, progressive and liberal priests and ministers, for the most part). So even the non-religious and secular among us were out-numbered, surrounded, by the believers. The devout.

This is one of the things I’ve always loved about the IBS/GTU, to be honest. The marriage between academic and personal study. These two worlds seem so separate and often at odds with one another in the rest of the world. Which is a shame because I think the two have a lot to learn from one another. But, I digress.

At any rate, the point here is that I was exposed to the teachings of Shinshu in an environment where I could question them and apply them to my life and explore them and take them or leave them if I chose. But, like I said last time, this was also a time in my life when Very Bad Things were happening to me personally. And it’s when Bad Things are happening that we tend to need the most help and support. So it was not without a certain amount of earnestness that I started thinking about Shinshu in personal terms.

But what about Shinshu appealed to me so much? Since this entry is already getting long in the tooth, I’ll leave that question for the next time. But not wholly unanswered. I think there were three things that first attracted me: the life story of Shinshu’s founder, Shinran; Harry (my good friend and minister at my wedding) telling me that Shinran once said “just because you have the antidote doesn’t mean you keep drinking the poison”; and a deep and abiding sense of gratitude for what I had even when I had nothing.