That Old Religion

March 2nd, 2010

Shanti Stupa at RajgirA few weeks ago there was a college class visiting the Sunday morning service at Still Point. After the Dharma talk, Koho offered to answer questions, and there was a certain recurring theme to the questions. One, for example: “What religion were you before you became a Buddhist, and do you feel like you made the right choice?”

As much as I bristle behind the assumptions of the question, it’s probably a fair question. You wouldn’t go to a Catholic church and ask the priest, “What religion were you before you became a Catholic?”–but a place like Still Point is a little different. Only a handful of us were raised by Buddhist parents, and almost all of us came to Zen Buddhism as adults, as a conscious decision. Yet in the ways that religion is tied to culture, that decision hasn’t altered our DNA. I would still identify as a WASP, and of course the P in that stands for Protestant. The places in the world where wars are fought over religion tend to be ethnically divided as well–it’s not a conflict over some fine point of scripture so much as the tribes fighting other tribes.

But there’s a difference in the question for me, that immature belief and mature belief aren’t the same. As a child, I was told a certain set of beliefs, but it’s not like I just replaced them with a different set. If you’d asked me when I was seven years old if I believed in Jesus and The Bible and Santa Claus I’d have said sure–but my approach to Buddhism isn’t really about replacing those beliefs with contrasting propositions. It’s not like I used to believe that the holiest day of the week was Sunday and now I’ve changed my mind and say it’s probably Wednesday.

So if I look at Buddhism as my religion now, I look to what my religion was before in terms of what Buddhism is to me now. In other words, “What principles did I use to pattern my life before following the path of Buddhism?”

And honestly, there’s an answer to that. Before I was a Buddhist, my religion was materialism and consumerism.

I followed that path because I believed in striving to meet my own preferences through the consumer process. I believed that my adulthood should be focused on a career that will allow me a paycheck, and through that paycheck I would maintain a fulfilling life. Life, I believed, is supposed to fit my preferences, through earning money to make that happen. I believed that enough financial power could make me happy, make me noble and make me free.

Now, I must clarify: I wasn’t really great at that religion. I graduated from college with a BA in English. And I also can’t say that I renounced that religion, quitting it cold turkey. Consumerism is still part of my life.

But Buddha taught that our preferences are ultimately empty. He showed us how much we spin our wheels, trying, trying, trying to make the world the way we want it to be. And while he wasn’t in a world with 24-hour espresso stands, online shoe stores and ten-dollar t-shirts, he still knew this about consumerism: it will not make us happy, it will not make us noble, and it will not make us free.

I wonder if people asking how we “found Buddhism” expect us to tell them a version of “Amazing Grace”–that we were once blind, and now we see. It’s not like that for me. I keep practicing because the kind of insight that Buddha had, the deep understanding of life, is just a speck on the horizon for me. Buddhism is a path that redefines what success is, and that’s why I follow it. Meditation is an essential step on this path, a practice of cultivating mindfulness and wisdom, seeing through the wishful thinking that leads us down futile paths. Essentially, Buddhism gives me a renewed aspiration to see the world–not as I would prefer it to be–but as it is.

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