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Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Hi all,

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?


David said...

Hello Mike! It is nice to meet you. We are connected through Ryan, who I grew up with and respect greatly.

I am not familiar with Buddhism at all, except for stereotypes of meditation. I hope to learn about it by reading your posts and maybe picking your brain. I am afraid though, that I am just not interested enough (meaning I don't have any time to devote to it) to do any research on my own, especially being a husband, father, and a music student.

I live in Texas and am studying the performance of the viola. This all ties in to religion for me, because I wouldn't be here without it. I grew up Protestant, specifically "Evangelical Presbyterian" although my personal beliefs rarely see much difference in the Protestant sects. With that said, I am currently a "United Methodist" due to my mentor, my father in law who is a United Methodist minister. Like yours, my family was (and is) quite devoted to worship, and I can count the numbers of Sundays I missed on two hands during the first 16 years of my life. Complications did arise for me: I have bipolar disorder. Life goes from golden to black in my eyes every two or three weeks. I spent several years struggling with faith, my body and desires, and sometimes, flat out surviving. It wasn't until I focused on Jesus' teachings and God's plan for my life that things at all started looking up for me. I discovered the woman that God had put right in front of my face, and married her. She is a Heavenly gift, and has a bigger calming effect on my moods than any medication or uneducated attempt at meditation ever had. Under His direction, we moved to the town and University which I currently attend, and changed my major to music. He then provided the money, through scholarships and government grants, for me to quit my full time job and focus on my studies.

These experiences solidified in my mind the presence and active will of God, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. My background in the Church and the Bible was a wonderful gift my parents gave me. It is a religion I was born into, then chose. My son attends Church with us now, and prays with us at dinnertime, although I hope to have the strength of the father of the prodigal son, and your parents, to let him go, should he choose. Fatherhood has definately made me pray more!

Ryan said...

Great post, Mike! Like I said on the phone, I was always sad that we never got to have this conversation in full, so I'm really glad you went ahead and did this.

I completely agree on the importance you place on how we view and treat the earth. Having dated a Marine Biologist for the last few years, my eyes have certainly been opened to the ecological connections that all living creatures share. There is no independent organism, no independent action, even. Every decision we make has an impact on the people and other living things around us.

Likewise, I also value greatly the need for questioning and establishing one's own beliefs. This is very much where I feel I am right now in my spiritual path; questioning the tenets of the Christian faith and whether they line up with the reality of the world around me. But perhaps I should start at the beginning.

My parents were both overseas missionaries when I was born in Trier, Germany, so since I was born I've been involved in a local church of some sort. My first memory of joining a church was when we first moved to Marshall, TX and joined Central Baptist Church. That church was to be the center of my world for the next 12 years or so, as most of my friendships founded throughout gradeschool were based within that church. Of course, being Southern Baptists, Christianity wasn't just about attending church, it was about pursuing an actual relationship with Jesus.

Though my memory is a bit fuzzy, I seem to recall making the decision to "accept Jesus into my life," when i was about seven, although, honestly, all I remember is that it was my ticket to heaven and I definitely didn't want to miss the boat on that one (it sure beat the alternative!). It wasn't until my freshman year in high school that I had a better understanding of what it meant to try and live out the teachings of Christ and share the good news of my salvation. As I progressed through High School and into College, being a christian became more and more about right living instead of right belief.

I attended a private christian university in my home town (mostly because of free tuition, but also because it had a great music program) and was immersed even further into a bubble of christianity, very well insulated from the world around me. By the time I was eighteen, I realized that I would never truly be treated as an adult at that school, considering I still had a curfew and females weren't allowed in my dorm room except on certain visitation days.

For the most part, I just accepted these regulations on my life (with due mockery) and went on. But by my Junior year, I began to realize that there was a better way to live. My closest friends and I began reading scripture for ourselves, seeking to understand what love really meant. In the end, the dichotomy of sin and righteousness came to be replaced with love and hatred in my eyes. Following in the steps of Jesus teachings on love, my friends and I began to question some of the fundamentals that we had been raised in. One in particular was the question of homosexuality. We realized that we had just been taught that it was bad, but that we should love and pray for homosexuals. We realized that the issue was much more complicated than that and began reading everything we could for ourselves on the issue, a practice that seemed new and exciting for us. The more we read and the later we stayed up talking about what we had read at Waffle House, the more we came to realize that we couldn't agree with how we had been raised, that righteousness comes through love, not through gender.

At the same time, I was beginning to take issue with some of the core tenets of the faith, particularly the transaction-like nature of the the Cross that I had been raised in, as well as the problem of the violence of the old testament and the seeming incongruence of the two testaments. Not willing to break with my faith, I continued to struggle with these issues while trying to find explanations of them that made sense. One philosopher in general caught my attention, Rene Girard. His theories of reciprocal violence and the formation of myth/culture was one of the most coherent attempts I had ever read to unify the two testaments, but I won't go into details here. Essentially, the gospel and portions of the bible were shown to be truly unique among world myths. However, I began to doubt whether this uniqueness meant that they were divine, or that I should be living my life according to them.

So after having attended Grad school and lived on my own in a big city, I finally feel like I'm in a place where I can say, "you know what, maybe I don't believe everything i was raised to believe," and be happy that i'm finding my own spiritual path. And that's what I'm in the process of doing. I have a lot of problems with the Christian faith that I'm focussing on right now; issues like the problem of evil, the plausibility of a Creator God in comparison with the evidence of Nature, the nature of revelation and scripture, as well as the nature of belief itself. And i know that this questioning, this pursuit of understanding, is but a step on the path of my journey. Where that path is to lead me, I'm still not sure.

But this I do know: it's better to love than to hate. It's better to see ourselves as connected with each other and with the world than to try and live as islands. It's better to be generous than frugal in our interactions with others. These are truths that, I believe, can be found in the parts of the Christian faith. Whether or not it's the ONLY place they can be found, and whether or not those parts justify belief in the whole, well, those are my questions.