I just figured I should introduce myself, and since Ryan's looking for deep writing, I thought a good topic would be how I came to my particular faith.
I'm the primary author over at Unknowing Mind, a blog predominantly focused around my Buddhist writings, as well as some poetry. If you want to know more about me, just peruse my writings there; I think a large part of myself comes out in my writing. I'm ridiculously liberal in my viewpoint (i.e. I vote Green Party; I think all other political issues should take a backseat to ecological issues because if the planet dies, it sure doesn't matter how strong our economy is; I am a pacifist, however I do recognize that strong military action might be necessary under extreme circumstances -- though we are not in such circumstances now -- and I'm glad somebody other than me is running for president because I could never declare war on another country).
So how I came to my Buddhist practice... well, I grew up a Catholic and attended Catholic grammar & high schools. My family went to church regularly -- my dad and I would even go to the 7 AM mass together, and if THAT doesn't show dedication, I don't know what does. :) In approximately 5th grade, I began to recognize that the Christian faith just didn't model the world in which I lived. I just didn't see the world in such a black & white dichotomy, with God being the ultimate good. If I had been a stronger person at the time, I would have refused my 8th Grade confirmation as I was completely non-Christian by that point, though I did not. Anyway, back in about 6th grade, I chose to stop going to church, explaining to my parents that I didn't feel it represented my views. They respected that, which I greatly admire about them.
Starting in 7th grade, I started researching other religions, particularly Pagan faiths, as their focus on Nature and the environment, as well as their ancient heritage, really appealed to me. It was my experience -- and still is -- that the world around us is alive and, in some unique ways different from humans, conscious; a very pantheistic thought. Throughout high school, I would have classified myself as a general Pagan in religion. During college, I didn't have time for religion (nor my beloved sport of Baseball!), so both got pushed aside, and my skills as a shortstop waned.
While in grad school, I started training in Aikido, a Japanese martial art. It was there that I was introduced to Zen meditation, as our dojo was affiliated with a Rinzai Zen temple. (though I was NOT new to meditation and mental focus, as that was a major part of my Pagan practices throughout high school). After I graduated with my Masters degree in electrical engineering, I moved out of my parents house, and unfortunately too far from my Aikido dojo to continue training there. Well, I did continue for awhile, even enough to pass my 4th Kyu test, but then the 1 1/4 hour travel time each way became too much.
After a couple years in that location, I moved into Chicago proper, into the Lincoln Park area. I had always been a bibliophile, with a particular interest in religion & spirituality, but for whatever reason I had never read a single book on Buddhism ... until I moved to Chicago. Then one day, I stumbled on a book at Borders. Honestly, I cannot remember which one, but reading this book, I suddenly realized that Buddhism truly fit the beliefs I had developed; it was almost uncanny!
So I don't leave this point too general, let me give a specific example. In Aikido, one of the practices I had to train for was called Randori, or in other words, defending against multiple attackers. For my 4th Kyu test, I had to face a single attacker who would run at me and perform any grab he or she chose, and I had to defend against it. Then once the attacker got up from my throw, he or she would keep coming right back at me with different grabs, which I had to defend. So it's a continuous assault in which I have to demonstrate a wide variety of techniques on an attack that I cannot predict in advance because the attacker can do anything (this is the predecessor to multi-person attacks with no limitations on the type of attack). I struggled mightily with this. Even though I was highly athletic, which had propelled me up the Aikido ranks quite quickly, I just couldn't grasp this skill. Until this one day. It was a saturday, and we had a small turnout in class -- maybe 5 people. Since we were all fairly highly ranked -- I was the lowest -- our teacher decided to make it a Randori day. So I struggled through it, with rather poor results as normal. Until at one point, Sensei said to me, "Slow down, breathe, and just accept the attacker." Of course he had been telling me something similar for weeks, but for whatever reason, this time, something clicked inside me. I knelt down on the mat in position, took a deep breath and focused on a spot about 3 feet in front of me. My mind had that ultra-calm feeling of being "in the zone" that athletes experience -- something I had felt countless times before. But this time, it went beyond all of those previous experiences. Sensei yelled, "Hajime!" (meaning "Begin" in Japanese), and I bolted up and trained my eyes on the attacker. And a strange thing happened. It was as though I could feel in my own body every move he was about to make. He grabbed for my right shoulder. But I already knew he was going to do that before he moved, having felt it in my own body, and so by the time he was moving for me, I was already moving out of the way and preparing my defense. I threw him. He landed hard and came back, running around behind me to grab both wrists. But again, I knew this before he even started his turn around me, and I stepped aside, led his arms up, and propelled him forward away from me. This continued for about 40 seconds, at which point Sensei stopped the randori.
I had experienced true Interbeing, the interconnected nature of us all that Buddhism proclaims (though, again, I did not know it by this name at this time, not having studied Buddhism at all yet). So while in meditation at home, I wondered how such an approach would function outside the dojo -- this being my normal questioning, probing self, as martial arts training is a life-training by nature, and thus a way to live your entire life, but I had to explore if that were true for myself. And explore I did. And I found that my entire life flowed much more smoothly when that view was operative. When I could sense the interconnectedness of myself with others, life was just easier; I was nearly always calm and collected, I could focus at will despite distraction, I was naturally helpful and generous to others without having to think about it, etc.
When I opened that book at Borders, and I came across the Buddhist teaching on Interbeing, I was sold.
That's just one example of how well Buddhism modeled my life experience. And so I began looking for a Buddhist temple to attend, to deepen my practice. And I found an amazing temple that has helped me greatly along my spiritual path.
Let me give one more specific example of how Buddhism modeled my life experience. One of the things I could never understand -- something which occurred to me as early as 5th grade -- is how people can follow a faith that they've never truly chosen for themselves. So many people I've talked to, from 5th grade to the present, call themselves X (insert whatever religion you want here) because that's what they were raised as. I simply don't get that. At some point, I think one has to make the conscious decision to follow X religion, and one has to work out those reasons for one's self. Without this step, it's blind faith, which in my opinion is a waste of energy as well as insulting to the faith. This doesn't mean you have to go through a "Dark Night of the Soul," but you have to make a conscious decision, backed by reasons and life experiences that lead you to that conclusion, to truly be an adherent of a faith.
The problem I saw is that the Western religions in which I had experience, including Catholocism and several Protestant denominations, didn't want you to question. It's not that they would turn you away if you came to your Pastor questioning, but they didn't teach this as a vital part of the practice of that faith, which I most definitely feel it is.
Fast forward to my trip to Borders in Chicago, where I read this from one of the Buddhist Sutras:
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon faith of tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor upon mere logical reasoning, nor upon mere philosophical reasoning, nor upon mere outward appearances, nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another's seeming ability, nor upon the consideration, "The monk is our teacher."
But whatever, after due examination and analysis, you yourselves directly know, "These things are wholesome, blameless, prasied by the wise, when adopted and carried out, they are of benefit and lead to well-being, prosperity and happiness," then you should accept and practice them.
It was a Central Buddhist Teaching to always question and confirm for oneself all teachings, including those of the Buddha! Never were we, as Buddhist practitioners, to take teachings at their word. Instead, they must be applied and tested, and only then accepted. This direct knowledge of the truth is the hallmark of Buddhist teachings, and this is a primary reason why I am proud to call myself a Buddhist.
So how about you all? How did you come to choose your particular faith?