When I was 13 years old, I decided to become a Buddhist.
That decision lasted about three months.
I was raised in a household that didn’t believe in organized religion. My mother was a staunch atheist, and while my father was a spiritual agnostic, he made no secret of his disdain for most holy convictions. Of course, with regards to my religion, it was always my decision. My parents took me to at least a dozen different churches, to expose me to them, and encouraged me to follow one if any took my fancy.
I found these sojourns into various churches utterly fascinating. Each was unique; from the baroque seriousness of the Catholics, to the festive exuberance of Gospel; from the glazed serene looks of the Born Again Holy Rollers, to the dancing and chanting of the Hare Krishna’s. I still remember one hippy church that used the 60’s “God’s Eye,” a weaving of colorful yarn over branches laid in a diamond shape, as their focal point. It was odd to “pray” to something I had hanging all over my bedroom at home. Flower children danced up and down the church aisle to folk music. And part of the church was making art. I enjoyed it. But I had no idea why I was praying, or to whom.
I was baptized Catholic when I was 11 years old, but this was only because I was embarrassed to be the only child in school without a faith. Most people I knew were Catholic, so I just blindly chose it. But what they said seemed illogical, and shortsighted. When they told us that on judgment day that everyone who hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts would go to hell, I knew their outlook made no sense. Surely, I thought, the entire country of China couldn’t be sentenced to eternal damnation, because they didn’t worship Jesus Christ. I decided a genius such as God must be would never commit an entire population to burn for eternity.
I loved the church field trips with my parents, but I never felt the need to embrace any of them. I did, however, listen to all view points, and the subject of religion fascinated me.
My friend Linda told me about a Buddhist Group that had just started in our neighborhood. She had already attended one meeting, and had found it intriguing. She urged me to join her, and I quickly agreed. I have always been hungry for new experiences.
I immediately went to the library to study this creed, and could find none of their teachings to be contrary to what I believed. Buddhism seemed to be more of a philosophy than a religion; and a viewpoint that I could support. It seemed to avoid the usual dogma and theology of other religions, and instead centered on the discipline of continual awareness. I could find nothing wrong with teaching myself to be more aware; especially when no one dictated what I should be aware of. I enjoyed the teachings of Karma and Dharma; of non-attachment and humility. Even better, Albert Einstein, someone I idolized and had pictures of in my bedroom, thought Buddhism had the “characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future.” It sounded like a religion that transcended the undeveloped ideas of sin, shame, guilt, and the rest. I was prepared to go.
That evening I told my parents about the Buddhist Group, and asked permission to stay out past my bedtime. It was also a school night, so I had to discuss this with them first. I thought for certain that they would support my decision to go; but it was quite the opposite. “This sounds like some sort of a CULT,” they told me, their eyes large with fear. “We don’t want you to go. They’re going to try and brainwash you.”
I did everything I could do to argue with their decision. I told them how I had been studying Buddhist doctrine, and that it intrigued me. I told them the location of the meeting, and that I wouldn’t be going alone. But most importantly, I assured them that I could never be brainwashed. I was a thoughtful, curious child, and not easily coerced. I just wanted to go and listen, I told them, with an open mind. And at last they agreed.
Linda was friends with an older boy; he must have been at least 19 years old at the time. It was he who had told her about these meetings initially, and it was he who agreed to pick us up and drive us to the meeting. My mother had assumed a parent would be picking me up, and when she learned it was just a teenager, she followed me out to the driveway to have a word with this boy. It was one of the most animated times I can ever recall my mother behaving; she grilled him on everything, from the Buddhists to the mechanical safety of his car. She was clearly concerned about my welfare, which made me begin to rethink my decision. Exasperated and embarrassed, I begged her to return to the house, and soon enough we were on our way.
The meeting was held at the home of a slight fragile woman, who was introduced as the Leader. When we arrived, we were asked to remove our shoes and take a seat on the floor. There was a strange shrine in the front of the room; I noticed a piece of parchment paper covered in Japanese lettering which sat center stage, surrounded by a variety of offerings; fruit, evergreens, incense, and candles.
The room was filled with guests. Our Leader picked up a stick and hit a large metal disc that was beside the shrine, and the sound echoed through the room and carried for a long time. When the endless note withered away, finally into silence, she spoke. She uttered words I had never heard before, and she said them slowly. “Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo.” I heard a collective sigh from the group, and soon they all joined in with this strange chant, and the room filled with sound; low tones from the males, high notes from the females, all blending together in a mesmerizing harmony. Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo, Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo, Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo. The incantation that filled the room was beautiful, and soon enough I found myself joining in. It was akin to singing, which I enjoyed, but this mantra went on forever. Eventually I began praying it would stop. The incessant hymn must have gone on for forty-five minutes.
I was thrilled when the leader eventually rang the bell again. The followers said one more round of the chant, but very slowly, holding out the final “kyo” until they had no more breath. It was over, thankfully. The Leader looked around the room beaming; I believed she was trying to appear serene and at peace, but it didn’t ring true for me. I pinched Linda’s knee so that we could share a giggle, but she looked stoically forward.
“Good evening,” the Leader said at last. “I welcome you all here tonight, and I especially welcome the two young girls that have joined our fold,” she said, giving a nod to Linda and me. “You will need to see me after the meeting so that you can purchase your prayer book, beads and other items you will need, okay?” I hadn’t realized this enterprise was going to cost me money, and I was immediately put off, but I only nodded. I had no desire to be singled out.
“At this time, I would like to hear from the group about all the benefits you received this week from chanting. As we all know, as we recite the precious words Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo, we are to focus on a wish that we have for ourselves, our loved ones, and our lives. And those of you who practice this discipline religiously know that your requests are always answered. Who would like to start?”
A woman behind me was flailing her arms excitedly, beseeching the Leader to choose her. Her exhilaration was a tad over the top; so I was assured that I was about to hear philosophical musings about how this discipline had led to something important; a new awareness, or inner peace. Perhaps she had wished for something to benefit her fellow man; or had learned how selflessness leads to the greater good. I spun around so I could see her as she spoke. “I chanted for a new pair of shoes!” she squealed, “and I got them. We really couldn’t afford them, but after I spent a day chanting, my husband came to me and told me to go ahead and buy them. Thanks Buddha!”
I raised an eyebrow in disgust. And I fully expected that her trivial selfishness would be rebuffed by the group, and looked around, expecting to see narrowed eyebrows of distaste. But on the contrary, the room was beaming; just as our Leader had been when she began the meeting. And to my horror, the crowd began to applaud, and a few yelled out “way to go,” and that sort of nonsense. It was all so painfully ridiculous to me that I wondered if I was on Candid Camera.
The room filled with cigarette smoke, which was perfectly normal at that time. Even at that tender age, I too, smoked—and I asked a young man beside me if he had an extra. Unfortunately for me, however, my quiet request was overheard by the throngs, and as the man handed me a cigarette, the Leader broke into applause. “Our new friend just received a benefit! She wanted a cigarette, and after chanting this evening, her request was met immediately. You will see that chanting effects big change in your life; it will create miracles!” Her speech was met with a round of applause, and several congratulatory rubbings of my shoulder. I wondered if my parents were right; that this was some sort of a cult. I began to think they were all a bunch of dolts.
But I didn’t quit.
Most of us, when we are young, haven’t yet learned to set appropriate boundaries for ourselves. And following the meeting, when Linda and I were brought to a back room and given a list of items we needed to purchase; some mandatory, and others optional, I agreed to make the purchases. I only had enough money with me for one item; a small blue Buddhist chanting book. Inside was one long chant that went on for pages. “Please begin memorizing this immediately,” I was told. “And next week, bring enough money to buy the rest of the mandatory requirements.” I only nodded, but I felt I had gotten myself involved with something that was a bit more than I could handle. Strangely enough, I can still recite that entire prayer, syllable for syllable, to this day.
I did return the following week, and I brought enough money to buy the items required. And I returned the week after that, and the week after that. And although I was highly skeptical about all that went on, I tried to keep an open mind; I was willing to wait and see what transpired.
The Leader informed me that to have full effect from the chanting, that I would need to be baptized into the religion; and once the ceremony was performed, I would be given my own Gohonzon.
I had learned all about the Gohonzon; which was a scroll of rice paper, covered in Japanese symbols. This was what sat in the middle of everyone’s personal shrine; and it what the followers hung on their walls at home and sat in front of to chant.
When you looked at the front of Gohonzon you would see the characters of Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo. But if you turned the Gohonzon on it’s backside it was blank. “Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo is the written law,” we were told. “But you can't see it. You can't point to it, or identify it. It is a power that exists. Gohonzon is the mirror of your life. When you look at a mirror you think you are looking at yourself, but it is only an image of your physical self that you are looking at. You can't see inside yourself -- your thoughts, your spiritual aspect. Gohonzon is the mirror of your heart--the mirror of your life. You need a mirror so that you know what you look like in your heart.” I grasped the concept of the Gohonzon. But what I didn’t understand was why my fellow Buddhists didn’t seem to mirror or grasp what Buddhism was all about. They were like children, begging Santa Claus for a plethora of unneeded toys.
But apparently this piece of paper was very important. “You can not receive full benefits until you receive the Gohonzon,” the Leader told me. “And you cannot receive the Gohonzon until you are blessed officially into the church.” And with that, I was taken in the back room, and I was scheduled for a baptism.
The following Saturday, I was driven in a van with other worshipers to a church somewhere far away. I was thrilled when we finally arrived, and stared out the window at the huge modern building that rose from the parking lot. The temple was called “The Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” named after a popular novella written the year prior; a fable about a seagull learning about life and flight, possibly reincarnation; and a homily about self-perfection. The book was extremely popular, but I giggled to myself over the name. It struck me as trite.
The church was large, and to my surprise, filled to the rafters with parishioners. And as I tried to find my seat, many of them seemed to barrage me; beaming that familiar smile at me, offering me everything from candy to illegal drugs. I didn’t want to judge anyone, but many of them seemed a bit off-kilter to me, and there were multitudes of homeless, addicts, and the like.
The service quickly got under way. It began just as the smaller meetings did, with the familiar strike on a metal disc, but at this church the disc was enormous; it was a large gong, and it was hit with something the size of a baseball bat. Immediately the congregation broke into the familiar, “Nam myo ho ren-ge kyo,” but this time the chant was sung by a group of hundreds; and the effect of so many voices together was stirring.
The chanting always went on for too long, for me, a child of 13. But on this night, I didn’t mind, because I had been instructed that immediately following the opening ceremony, that the baptisms were next on the agenda. I dreaded it.
Soon enough the chanting ceased, and the Leader asked that all people who were being baptized into the church that day to line up in the back. I obediently made my way there, and was pleased to see I wouldn’t be alone; I joined a half a dozen other people who were to receive their Gohonzon that day. Suddenly, music filled the large hall; strange, eerie music. “Get down on your knees!” I was instructed.
“GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES. You must crawl in humility to receive your Gohonzon.”
Well, I didn’t much want to crawl on my knees for anything. But with a hall filled with people watching, I did just that. I crawled. I crawled all the way down the aisle on my hands and knees, and rather than feel humble, I felt humiliated. At the end of the aisle, a man in robes spoke a chant over my head, and then lastly, handed me my Gohonzon. It was rolled up in a scroll, and tied with a narrow red ribbon.
But the humiliation I suffered that day was nothing compared to what happened a week later.
After receiving my Gohonzon, I was instructed to leave it in scroll form until members of the temple could come to my house and help me to set up my shrine. There were many regulations regarding this altar; it had to be housed on a Southern wall, it had to be encased in wood, and it had to have a way to close shut. I was told a wooden fruit cart would even do until I could find something better, and a makeshift cloth could be fashioned to serve as a curtain that could be closed. But regardless, this process had to be supervised, and it had to take place only in conjunction with a ceremony.
The last thing I wanted was for these people to come to my house. But they were so persuasive I felt I had to relent, so I agreed to the following Saturday. I have never regretted anything more.
My family were all at home; my parents, my sister and her boyfriend. Imagine my horror when suddenly we all heard the chanting of a dozen or so people coming down the street toward our house. They were loud, and everyone in the neighborhood could hear and see them walking toward our house. My sister’s boyfriend found the whole thing utterly hilarious; he opened the front door to our home and laughed in their direction, pointing to the group and snickering. I looked out the window and saw them; they were coming to my house; they were chanting loudly and with earnestness; I could see my neighbors across the street peek out of their windows to see who had created such a ruckus; and I had never felt such embarrassment as I did as this troupe walked right up my own driveway. I wanted to disappear.
They knocked on the door, but the chanting never stopped. My mother opened the door, and without an intelligible word, the worshipers swept right by her, pushing her aside, then found me and encircled me. My mother was mouthing to me over their heads, “I want these people out of my house,” and I could only give her a look as if to say, “What can I do?” They stood around me in a circle, chanting louder and louder; and at this point my sister’s boyfriend was on the floor, giggling and pounding the carpet. Then the Leader whispered to me that I should lead them to my bedroom.
I began to walk and the group followed me; their chanting getting ever louder. My sister’s boyfriend was in hysterics, yelling out slurs and calling them names, making fun of everything about them. The Leader whispered that I needed to chant as well, but I was too embarrassed. Instead, I pretended to have a coughing fit until all of the church goers were safe in my bedroom. But I wasn’t safe in the slightest; the laughter never stopped.
My Gohonzon was enshrined in a wooden box and nailed to the proper wall of my bedroom. The church people brought fruit, incense, candles, flowers, and everything I needed for a proper alter. I continued to feign a coughing fit throughout; if only to block out the laughter right outside the door. My face was hot with mortification. I wanted them to leave.
But the final nail in my Buddhist coffin came about a week later.
While at our weekly meeting, we were told that we were going to go knock door to door that evening in an effort to coerce more sheep into their flock. We were also supposed to ask for money.
I walked several blocks with the church goers as we knocked on door after door. I let the others give their speech; I usually hid behind the nearest stick of shrubbery. All I could think of was the countless times we’d encountered the Jehovah Witnesses on the other side of our own door, dressed in their black suits and white shirts, carrying stacks of the “Watchtower” and preaching about their version of God. If we saw them walking toward our door we’d hide; and if we accidentally opened the door, it often took at least twenty minutes to get rid of them. I always thought what an imposition it was; I’ve never enjoyed solicitation in any form. And now, here I was with my brethren imposing the same brand of nuisance.
When they knocked on the next door, I hid behind the garage. And then I walked away. I walked until I couldn’t walk anymore, until I found a phone booth and called my mother to pick me up. “I’m done,” I told her on the phone.
“Thank God,” was her answer. And the irony of her reply was not lost on me.
As my mother chastised me in the car ride home, telling me that I was gullible, I hardly listened. Because I hadn’t been gullible; I had been open-minded; something that she wasn’t. But I decided on that car ride home that while I would always seek spirituality, it would never again be in an organized way. I would form my own church called the Church of One, and I would be the only member.
The concept of Karma followed me to my Church of One. I find that when I smile, people often smile back; it seems true that what you put out is what you receive. I know that I choose to live this life with love. And in turn, I am loved.
I don’t know what God is. But if there was an artist who designed the Universe, I stand humbled before him, and thank him for the purple mountains, the sunsets like scoops of sherbet, and the gushing green muscles of the ocean. It is nothing short of magnificent.
I don’t what God is. But I do see repetitions in nature; such as the marijuana leaf that is repeated on the shell of a sand dollar; the branches of trees which resemble our own veins, or the atoms and molecules which are replicas of the solar system. When I notice these patterns, there seems to be order in the chaos. Sometimes I think God is order in the chaos. Sometimes I think he might be a mathematical equation.
I don’t know what God is. But I know there isn’t a place with pearly white gates, and angels with harps sitting on fluffy white clouds. And I know there isn’t a spot where men are tortured with fire and brimstone; a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth for eternity. These concepts are too rudimentary for an artist creative enough to fashion something as inspired as the cosmos. But I do know there is heaven and hell on earth; in every single moment of our lives and in every single choice. Everything is a compilation of Yin and Yang, half black and half white. And the notion of heaven and hell can only be a metaphor and fable, for the dichotomy of being alive. Along with everything positive, comes an equally powerful negative.
I know that science explains much of the mystery of our world. But I also know we don’t know everything. To believe that we do is arrogant and supercilious; it is hubris. We only have a piece of the puzzle, of that I am sure.
I know that the only perfection is in imperfection.
I don’t know what faith is. I don’t trust much of what I see around me. But I have faith that I will never know. I have faith that I will die.
I don’t know what miracles are. But my body is a miracle. My heart pounding in my chest is a miracle. I marvel to be awake every day, and I honor that gift with being as aware as I can.
I know that whether or not there is an afterlife, or some sort of eternal existence, is not the point. Because I am certain that we have to live this one as if it’s all we have, regardless of the truth. To forfeit what is right before you for some blind faith as to what might be in front of you, seems irrational. We need to live as if there are no second chances; as if there are no rewards or retributions. Heaven and Hell are right here, right now. We have our gifts and we have our punishments, right this very moment.
I know that Judgment Day is today. You be the Judge.
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