My path to Buddhism was anything but a straight line, and was punctuated with many starts and stops. For example, while growing up, religion was missing from my family life. Even as a young child I was instinctively put off by it, and this was not discouraged. We celebrated Christmas only as a cultural holiday, and Easter was just an excuse to bust out the fine china for a meal other than Thanksgiving.
Yet, growing up, part of me envied friends who had the comfort and fellowship of religious ritual. Drawn to this, I went to church for awhile during high school with my boyfriend and his family, who were Lutheran. My atheist mother had had me baptized Lutheran before getting on a propeller-powered airplane in the early 1960s and relocating us from Ohio to California. At the last minute she decided to hedge her bets with her only baby and chose Lutheran because she liked the churchliterally, the building it was housed in. I’ve always loved that.
While I enjoyed the sense of inclusion I felt in my boyfriend’s church, teenaged me was disillusioned by the people who were pious on Sunday but failed to walk the walk the other six days of the week. Oh, how self-righteous and judgmental we can be at this age! How flawed was my understanding of the practice of religion! My boyfriend and I subsequently graduated high school and drifted apart. I did not return to church.
For my first semester in college, a friend suggested a few courses to help me ease into its academic rigors. One was the fabled Easy A we called “Monday Night at the Movies,” where we’d watch a movie in class, hear a lecture by someone involved in its making, and then write a paper. Another was Music History, which started my lifelong love affair with classical music. I would check out Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, go into the listening rooms in the library, and blast the first movement of Winter until the windows shook. And the third course was Comparative Religions.
Comparative Religions started me on another love affair, that of the informal study of religions. Our instructor was Shinto and we spent most of the semester on Eastern religions, whipping through Judaism and Christianity during the last two weeks. (She must have thought we were already fairly well versed in those.) This was my initial exposure to Buddhism, which was presented with the usual negative tinge“Life is suffering”that lacked the insight of a practicing Buddhist. I was intrigued, but my study was that of a neutral outsider looking in.
Oh, how I wish I had embraced Buddhism then. Fast-forwarding through the next 20 or so years, many of which are too awful to linger over, I see how it would have helped me cope with my very rocky young-adult life. Picture a tiny me desperately ducking and running to avoid a giant dodge ball and getting flattened most of the time.
Without the wisdom of the Buddha, I had to learn for myself the truth of the impermanence of relationships, had to learn for myself that losing literally everything I owned except what I could cram into a borrowed car was, in the long run, actually liberating, had to learn for myself that the peaks and valleys of life simply happen, and happen to everyone. I had many hard-won personal insights into 2,500-year-old teachings.
Academic interest in religion started me on the road to Buddhism, and a book sale started me on the road to WCBT. Browsing through a bookstore that was going out of business, I found several volumes on Buddhism and scooped them up. I stacked them on my nightstand and methodically plowed through each one. Only later did I come to find out that “nightstand Buddhist” is a somewhat derisive term applied to people who think they can glean the subtleties of the Dharma from books alone, without the guidance of a sensei and sangha. People like me. No more putting it off: I had to find a temple.
It was at this point that I timidly announced my decision to my husband, who had been raised Lutheran and had in his youth briefly attended seminary. I was gratified that he shared my Buddhist leanings. We considered and rejected several temples, most because they did not speak English and others because we could not spend hours in seated meditation. On a bus ride home from work one day, I paged through a copy of Tricycle magazine (which helped sustain my zeal for Buddhism) and found, in the classified ads in the back, an ad for West Covina Buddhist Temple. A temple five minutes from my office!
But I was deeply skeptical of this Pure Land stuff. To my uninformed mind, it smacked of the trappings of Christianity. As usual, I researched it to death before we threw our hands up and decided to just go already. With much trepidation, we arrived at the temple unannounced one Sunday late in October .
Rather than solemn faces and silent meditation, we were greeted by…people in Halloween costumes. They wore them during service, which included singing and laughter, and then they played games with their costumed children. Delighted, my husband ran back out to our car, donned a get-up he’d worn at a Halloween party the night before, and came back in as a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. We were welcomed to the sangha with open arms and have been active ever since. We’re the official redheads of WCBT.
Now, three years later, I experience life through the lens of Buddhism. It gives me understanding where there was none, patience where it was lacking, and refuge when life is overwhelming. Like all of us I try to emulate the Buddha, but I’m still struggling to walk the walk 24/7. Teenaged me would scowl mightily at middle-aged me for thatbut middle-aged me just smiles back. She’ll get there, in her own good time.
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