“Why are you Buddhist?” I am asked this question about 90% of the time after I let someone know of my religion. Buddhism isn’t something that I chose to be exposed tomy mother is Buddhist, so I’ve been going to West Covina Buddhist Temple since before I can remember. But that’s not the reason that I am Buddhist. I was exposed to it because of my mother, but it became a part of me because I chose it for myself. I have found that Buddhism does more for me than any other religion or philosophy I have come across; the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha and Shinran Shonin, though hundreds of years old, are still applicable to me in my own interpretation of them.
When I was a little baby, my mother used to take me to church every Sunday, and I was one of two babies there. As I got older, I began to dislike going every week. I didn’t know why I went, but it was something that I had to do. My only perk in going was seeing the other children (by then there were more) and getting the Junior YBA people to play with me. Once I hit pre-school, I was already at the point that I would fight with my mother about having to go, and when summer break came in August, I would be happy because that meant that I didn’t have to go for a whole month. I even remember making deals with her to help wash her car if she didn’t make me go.
What made things worse for me, though, was that about the time I was starting elementary school, I discovered that there were religions other than Buddhism, and that, in fact, Buddhists are a minority. I began to get pressure from my cousin and from friends at school about Buddhism. My cousin would always ask me about Buddhism, and why I didn’t believe in God. At school, I saw people praying, and friends would ask me to go to church with them. I didn’t understand, at that point, why I was Buddhist, let alone, what Buddhism really was. Usually, I just tried to play the situation off and tell people the truth, that the only reason I was Buddhist was that my mom was Buddhist and she made me go to church.
As the years progressed, however, my dislike of church began to lessen and I wouldn’t mind going to church so much. The sermons became much less boring once they actually made sense to me. When I got to middle school and joined the Sangha Teens, I found myself doing things at church that were enjoyable, and found myself wanting to come just because of Sangha Teens. This change in my view towards church came around the same time as Rev. Kiyota’s tenure at West Covina. Rev. Kiyota helped me by expanding my views about Buddhism. He connected with me on a personal level and showed me how Buddhism relates to my life.
Once I hit high school, and the Junior YBA, things changed again. Up to high school, Buddhism was still something that was forced on me by my mother, but that I had come to accept without much dissent. In the Junior YBA however, I actually wanted to come to church to participate in activites and to socialize with the other Juniors. Even when my mother had to stay home because of her brush with cancer, I would go out of my way to bug a friend for rides to church. As a Junior, I attended seminars and conferences where I got a chance to discuss Buddhism with my peers and I realized that Buddhism isn’t something to be ashamed of, but something to be proud of. I also participated in discussions with our Junior YBA advisors and the various ministers. These discussions got me to think of Buddhism apart from what I learned in Sunday School, about the Eightfold Path and the life of Siddhartha, but more as a way of life. Thinking of Buddhism as a way of life was my first step towards becoming Buddhist, and not just being another person going to a Buddhist church.
As I began to mature intellectually throughout high school, the question of why I am Buddhist began to have new meaning to me. Instead of thinking that it was simply something that was forced upon me, I began to wonder why I stuck with it and whether or not I was really Buddhist. My curiosity got me interested in learning more about Buddhism. I read the articles on the Living Dharma website, which provided me with a good starting point, and from there, I moved on to more involved texts on Buddhism and Jodo Shinshu. As I read into Buddhism, I thought that maybe it would be interesting to learn about other religions as well, so I did short explorations of other major religions. Through my research, I reflected on my life and my own personal philosophies, and I realized that Buddhism makes sense to me; it fits my lifestyle and ideals. Living by the nembutsu and the teachings of the Buddha helps me to make sense of things in a way that other religions and philosophies don’t. My studies into Buddhism have brought me to the conclusion that Buddhism seems right for me.
Over the past year, I had a group of friends consisting of a Jewish person, a Christian person, a Catholic person, and a Chinese Buddhist. It was kind of ironic that no two of us belonged to the same religion, but as it worked out, we would have discussions about religion all the time in a very non-objective way. We shared our experiences with our religions with each other, and because of this, we gained a better knowledge of other religions. More importantly, though, we all learned more about our own religions and how they work for us.
This summer, when I went on the retreat to the Honzan in Japan, I heard lectures from Rev. Peter Lait, a Christian Buddhist Minister. He came from a Christian family, and through his own exploration, came to settle on Jodo Shinshu as the religion that was right for him. One of the things that Rev. Lait told our group is that Buddhism is what you make of it. It is a unique experience for everybody. Just because it works for my mother doesn’t mean that it will work for me. I have let Buddhism marinate inside my mind for the past 18 years, and only recently have I begun to realize what my experience with Buddhism is, and I think that I am finally seeing that Buddhism is something that works for me, and that I have made my own. That is why I am Buddhist, and unless I find something that fits me better, I will remain Buddhist. So why are you Buddhist?
Assorted WCBT Jr. YBA Pics:
Above: Keith is 2nd from right in the front row
Above: Keith is front row at left
Above: Keith (at top center) poses with friends Deena Mayeda (left), June Sakaue (right) and Marc-Mitchell Miyashiro (bottom)