My Drift Into The Abyss

A reader of The Discursionists has composed an account of his conversion from Evangelical Christianity to Buddhism.  To read all about it, click “keep reading.”

 First of all thanks to Grant for inviting me to write. And thanks to Terrence for introducing me to the site.  You guys are interesting and I think what I like the most are the polite disagreements between everyone.  There are some controversial things being posted here and I wonder, if I was still in the church, if I would have the guts to say some of the things the discursionists say sometimes.

 I was asked to present a history of my conversion from Evangelical Christianity into Buddhism.  The first thing I will say is that I hope to leave people with the perception that this is a personal story, and not an invitation to come over to the cushion.  Each person here seems committed to the cultivation of their own faith and their own expanded understanding of the world.  It is not my purpose to cause anyone to deviate from their own quest, although I do believe that those who dissent or outright disagree with us on this religion stuff can often be our best teachers.

 I attended church regularly; as far back as I can remember.  I first accepted Jesus into my heart at the age of 3. I don’t remember actually doing this, but I do remember my mom telling me about it later 🙂  Vacation Bible School was mandatory every summer, and AWANA was a cheap substitute for Boy Scouts.  I prayed daily through middle school and high school.  Throughout my teens I struggled but walked a relatively chaste line through the temptations of girlfriends and partying.  Keeping God in the forefront was a challenge but it was not impossible.

 Several life events and a slow turning of the mind led me to eastern thought.  It was a slow drip, not a single watershed moment, that got me here. The death of a close friend, the interactions with laypeople within my church, the political agenda of the Christian right, a love of the Beatles’ music, interest in dinosaurs as a kid (and thus a disbelief in straight Creationism), interactions I’d believed I had with God…all of these things and many more combined and continue to explain my movement here.  At age 19 I read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and like most 19 year old suckers who read that book, I was fascinated by its romantic view on Buddhism.  I would later find out that Kerouac was actually quite a lazy practitioner and ended up reverting back to Catholicism after only a few years!  But the initial impact was there, and I soon delved into Zen readings.

 For a few years I was what many in the Buddhist community refer to as a “Bedroom Buddhist,” reading books on the subject each night before bedtime.  One day in 2003, my wife and I decided to take a trip to the small town of Ridgeland, WI, where we had heard about a Tibetan lama who lived on a farm and taught meditation weekly.  I sat for an hour in his meditation hall in silence, counting each breath up to 21 and then starting over again.  Lama Yeshe sent us home after tea, and I began to practice meditation routinely after that.

 I still hadn’t washed out of my evangelism, though.  I brought Buddhist books places I had to have known would cause trouble, including my parents house, and as my book to read on Boundary Waters trips with my dad.  Eventually it all came to a head, and looking back, I think I was doing the same thing I had learned about religion in my church as a kid – if you know the answer, go tell it on the mountain.  This is in many ways antithetical to the teachings of the Buddha, as it is prone to cause suffering.  Indeed it did in my case. 

 The event in which I had to “decide” was a single argument with my father, in which he implored me to return to the church.  I couldn’t go back without completely denying everything I had experienced in my life up to that point.  We both ended up sobbing in frustration and not speaking for weeks. But I was past the point where I could return to Christian thought. He thought I was confused and asked me to speak to the pastor of our church. 

 The pastor and I spoke, and while he was very respectful, it was clear to me that I had long since moved on. One thing he did remind me of was that I had fewer options for Buddhist study in Eau Claire.  I think he may have been saying that to dissuade me from Buddhism, but whatever his motives were, the pastor did make a clear point. I needed a place to practice.

 Eventually I stumbled upon a study group that meets here each Wednesday, led by an accomplished teacher who presents introductory and higher level courses at varying meditation centers around the country.  The home in which we practice has now become a place of refuge for me and I cherish each week there.

 I still find it fascinating to read accounts and interpretations of biblical teaching.  It’s more of an anthropological thing now, and I hope no one here minds that my approach to the posts is one of curiosity. For some reason didn’t expect the recent accusations of heresy to start floating around.  Any time there is a challenge to the orthodox belief system I suppose one should prepare to be called a heretic.  I typically reject the idea that anyone _IS_ anything, as the assignment of fixed definitions to impermanent objects and ideas can be a cause of suffering.  And it is now quite obvious that even the definition of heresy is up for grabs here….

 …I digress….

 ….Knowing the basics of Christianity is definitely, I think, a basic necessity in being a good citizen.  Not only should one at least have a grasping of the concepts of major religions; one should keep in mind that the entirety of Western Civilization was formed under the umbrella of the church, for good or for ill.  An awareness of the underpinnings of our ancestral thought processes can greatly help shape our present actions. Knowing why my parents raised me in the church helps me understand their love for me, and their desire for my happiness, and I greatly appreciate all they have done for me and all they continue to do. 

 My wife, by the way, is still Catholic. We got married in her church and she continues to go to mass with her father weekly.  When I am in town (I’m a musician and I play most weekends), I attend with her father and her and it’s good family bonding time. Her priest has great homilies that apply the liturgy to every day life. 

 I do not espouse the things Buddha taught if I have not experienced their truth.  The concept of rebirth still leaves me scratching my head, for example, for the same reason any belief in afterlife leaves me wondering how one can put any faith in a phenomenon they have yet to experience.  But this questioning is encouraged within Buddhism.  I think I shared this with Terrence – the last teaching the Buddha offered went as follows:

 “Believe nothing on the faith of traditions,

even though they have been held in honor

for many generations and in diverse places.

Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it.

Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past.

Do not believe what you yourself have imagined,

persuading yourself that a God inspires you.

Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests.

After examination, believe what you yourself have tested

and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”

 Thanks again to Grant for the opportunity to share.  I hope any comments I’ve made in the past have not offended, and I hope to maintain civil discourse here whenever I post. Please feel free to call me out on posts that either disagree with reality as you understand it, or offer an unpleasant surprise in their candor.  One rule of “right speech” in the 8-fold path is not to knowingly or ignorantly offer divisive words. With religion and philosophy this can be difficult. Please know that it is out of ignorance if anything I say crosses the line, and feel free to make me aware of it so I can adjust moving forward.

-Joseph

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10 Comments

Filed under Guest Writers

10 responses to “My Drift Into The Abyss

  1. GCC

    Thanks for the post, Joseph. We really appreciate your participation here. It’s interesting to read a bit about the talk with the pastor, a 3-year old “asking Jesus into his heart,” etc.

    I assume it was more than the Christian Right and Creationism that turned you off. But if that’s all, I have a book that explains how the six day creation story (as if it were the only one in the Bible) can be literally true and that dinosaurs aren’t a problem (they just didn’t make it on the ark even though they lived among men), so let me know if you want me to send it to you. I’m kidding of course. Although I do really have the book!

    I did a quick Buddha search and ran into this interview: http://www.gracecathedral.org/enrichment/interviews/int_19980217.shtml
    (I didn’t do it on purpose, but it’s another example of those godforsaken heretics at the ever-shrinking Episcopal Church.)

  2. Joseph

    Thanks for the link! I have seen other people make the argument that Jesus went to India. There’s even one Russian explorer who claimed to visit a Tibetan monastery where they say they taught Jesus. The historical accuracy of these accounts is dubious, and I think had Jesus sincerely studied and become “enlightened” in the eastern sense it’s hard to imagine him making any claims about who his real daddy was. 🙂 Still it is sort of interesting to imagine what Jesus did in those missing years. I’d like to see a compilation of those hypotheses in one place some time.

    There are all kinds of similarities otherwise – I’ve seen whole books listing phrases of the dharma that resemble biblical quotes from Jesus. A good book from the Buddhist perspective is “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” written by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.

    I should be clear that it was not only the politics or the scientific views of those in my church that led me here. In fact my path has generally been much more of a mundane series of turns that is to me entirely unremarkable. I am a long way from where I started, and at the same time I feel like I’m not very far at all. That same sense of curiosity is still there, and my move here has really been driven by a long series of mental revelations triggered by events in my life; not so much by any outside influences themselves.

  3. serendipity hopeful

    I can see yours is a belief based on experiences tested by you. Appreciate the post.

  4. Christopher

    Thanks for sharing the history of your theological shift, Joseph! I have great admiration for people such as yourself who, despite their strong familial/cultural connections to some faith group, pursue truth the best they know, with the most integrity they can muster.

    Your story brings to light some aspects of Christianity that, as a Christian, I have always found personally distasteful. My girlfriend was baptized at age 7 in a horse trough (she was a Southern Baptist!) and readily admits today that it was because she wanted to be like her older friends. The question for my fellow Discursionists is: Where is the line between faith formation and indoctrination with children? Confirmation vs. Conformation – with any faith tradition.

    Looking into the candle-lit faces of children on Easter Vigil this last Spring, I was suddenly filled with the realization that at some point it will be my duty to pass this on. To what extent, and what are the costs? I have to admit that I haven’t found too many “Christian Educators” with whom I would trust my future children. My problem is that a complex and mysterious faith is often dumbed down into simplistic and shallow theology for easy consumption (ie: “Jesus is your personal friend and savior,” “Ask Jesus into your heart and you will be saved.”) And as a Church Music director, I can tell you that there are an awful lot of adults who seemed to never grow beyond their Sunday School idea of God. But in all honesty, how do you explain the mysteries of our various faiths to children? I am curious to know each of your stories.

    A Jewish mother once told me that Jews like her force their children to schule until the big Bar/Bat Mitzvah day. Then they allow their children to rebel through adolescence if so inclined. The feeling was that the groundwork was laid: family, tradition, culture, God. As the children grow into adulthood, they might threaten their parents with talk of Buddhism (hehehe, the hilarious fear of even highly-educated Judao/Christian parents?)….but that ultimately life would take its course: a divorce, the loss of a child, some emotional-spiritual event would draw them back to their faith ‘home.’ It’s an interesting philosophy, and I can certainly see some truth in it among my friends as each year passes.

    Thoughts on any of my drivel?

  5. GCC

    Even assuming Jesus never was “‘enlightened’ in the Eastern sense it’s hard to imagine him making any claims about who his real daddy was.” On the other hand, it’s really easy to imagine him using anthropomorphic metaphor in the Biblical tradition.

    When it comes to teaching kids a fatih tradition, I think you can compare it to teaching language. You have to do it in stages and bit by bit, but you must start from the premise that there is a whole language, and that the bits and pieces are just that, and ultimately useless unless grafted together to create be the language. Those people who never grow beyond their Sunday School ideas of God probably had teachers that taught them the alphabet but forgot to tell them that the alphabet was just a beginning piece of the whole language that they could ultimately come to learn, and that the alphabet without the full language was ultimately meaningless.

  6. Hi Joseph, thanks for writing.
    I have been working as a correspondent to India for our ministry and I am engaged in approaching eastern thought often from a Christian perspective, naturally I was very interested in your post. I have a question though. It seems that you perceive of Jesus as a ‘western’ thinker – that seems a bit of an anachronism. How would you compare Jesus and ‘eastern’ thinkers?

    And, it appears you’ve left the childhood version of Christianity, one I wish many Christians would dare to leave, would your ‘conversion’ or ‘journey’ into buddhism really be complete, or could it simply be a change in religious content, not form? And why call it an Abyss?

    Thanks again for posting, any clarifications or further information is helpful!

  7. Joseph

    Thanks for the questions paulo!

    I do think you’re right – to label Jesus as This or That is to apply an anachronism. There is also a risk, because of my drift toward Buddhism, that I appear dismissive of anything “western” because of course Buddhism is considered “eastern.” This was not my intention, and really it was just a round-about way of simply saying that I think Jesus stayed put in the general vicinity of Jerusalem in that missing time period.

    Regarding the term “abyss:” my current life is pretty flat, and I don’t have a lot to rely on – in many ways feel like I am floating through. I like idea this a lot, but it may seem paradoxical. I don’t have faith that the world will work out in my favor. In fact I am pretty sure in the end, I’ll die. I’m grateful, for this reason, that I have such a wonderful life (most of the time anyway!). The web of cause-and-effect is pretty unpredictable, so the simple fact that I am here, able to experience what I am able to experience, is wonderful to me and it’s pretty easy to enjoy most of my time here. Perhaps the use of the term “abyss” creates some confusion around this. If it helps, I originally used the word “beautiful” before it; it just looked pretty cheesy when I read it on the screen. 🙂 (because the rest of my writing is just pure gold, right?)

    I’m not sure I understand the question about form vs. content – could you expand on that a bit?

  8. Paulo

    i got the ‘form vs. content’ discussion from a work on human development and faith written by James Fowler called ‘stages of faith’. I think what you have described is your longing for the ‘form’ of faith to grow and become more, rather than simply the content. Fowler uses Paul Tillich, and Riceour to explain a persons use of the symbolic in relation to the trancendant to be tacit in meaning, until those symbols are ‘demythologized’. Therefore a person may ‘convert’ to another faith content-wise, but remain relating to the transcendant by way of the same means (form). For most this simply means the re-appropriation of symbols which have yet tacit (unexamined) meaning.

  9. Discourse requires subjectivity acknowledging itself as such, rather than as something more. I recommend the following post: http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/objective-vs-subjective-a-matter-of-biblical-hyperbole/

  10. Joseph

    Paulo – sorry I missed this, it’s been awhile now!

    I see what you mean now. Thich Nhat Hanh certainly does a bit of re-appropriation of symbols in his work “Living Buddha, Living Christ.” It may easy to read the above text I’ve written as a basis for the supposition that I remain a follower of the same basic belief system, and that I simply use different words to describe the same content.

    There is, however, a small but significant difference between the basic content of Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism does not allow for an outside entity (like a god) controlling or creating stuff. Only basic laws of cause-and-effect (dependent-arising and inter-being) govern our existence. There is no wonder as to who or what put these laws into place – by definition even that entity would have had to have a cause in order to come into existence. In Buddhism there is no beginning and no ending. Based on my experiences – the past few years of watching my thoughts, world events, natural phenomena, etc. – I tend to agree with this basic line of thought. This puts the content of my “faith,” if it can be called that, at odds with a very significant piece of the content of my former belief system.

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