Why Did You Become A Buddhist?

Why Did You Become A Buddhist? May 2, 2016

dharma bum
dharma bum Photo by Sven Neven, Flickr C.C.

I tell two different stories about how I discovered Buddhism. One of them is that I started meditating to relieve anxiety and came to Buddhism just from learning more about meditation. The other is that I learned about Buddhism when I took a class in college and something about it inspired me to become a Buddhist.

I’ll tell them both here. If I’m honest, I have to tell you that I don’t remember which one is true.

As a kid I had some spiritual experiences. I experienced what Dogen calls, “the dropping away of body and mind.” Not in any special situation. It just happened to me a few times.

I hadn’t heard of anything like the path to awakening, so in my mind I thought of it in different ways. But, I think deep down it was always the path to awakening, the mystic’s path, that I was thinking of. I just made up metaphors to fill in the gaps.

I sometimes imagined I would step through a doorway and enter another world—a pure land of wonder. But, the truth was I didn’t need to look for a pure land of wonder, because I’m already in one.

And so are you. The pure land is right here.

Anyway, by the time I started college I felt alone in the universe. I had lost both my parents to cancer. My brother—my only sibling—and I were never really close. He is eight years older than me, so I didn’t really grow up with him.

I fell into a deep dark hole, as can be imagined. My parents left me an inheritance. It wasn’t a substantial inheritance. We weren’t wealthy, but it was enough for me to go to college. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I went to college. That’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I can remember as a very young child wanting to be a writer, but at some point between childhood and young adulthood I just let that dream go. I decided it was unrealistic, which it was. It still is.

A lot of people try a lot of different things in college. A lot of people have a lot of fun and remember it as the best time in their life. I was essentially grieving the whole time. College was certainly not the best time of my life. I suffered from anxiety and depression. It was a very very bad time.

I can remember one time that I was sad and I contemplated suicide. I was just so sad and I felt so very alone. I stood on a bridge overlooking a busy highway, I-35, and I thought about jumping. I stood at the edge and really considered it. What a gruesome way to go! The fall wasn’t very far. The fall wouldn’t kill me. It would be the cars zooming by at eighty miles an hour. I’d land in front of one that wasn’t able to stop and it would run me over. Then there would be tires screeching, cars would collide in their efforts to avoid hitting this young man laying in the street. What a mess! Now I know there’s a chance that I wouldn’t even die from that if I had jumped. Needless to say, I didn’t do it. But I stood on that bridge overlooking that highway for a long time.

I saw a therapist. I didn’t open up to him much, but I told him I was anxious and depressed. He prescribed me an SSRI medication. I know medication works really well for some people. It didn’t work for me, or it worked too well. It made me a crazy person. I would do things like give strangers great big hugs and I would always say what I was thinking instead of having any sort of filter. And a couple of times I groped women that I didn’t know very well. It’s fortunate that I realized these pills were a problem and stopped taking them before anything bad happened to me. Things could have gone south very easily.

I quit taking them.

I was grasping at straws, trying to figure out how to get through life. I went back to that therapist and told him that I couldn’t take the pills anymore. He asked if I had heard of meditation, that it was a technique to manage anxiety. I had never heard of it, but I became interested. I wanted to learn more. I never saw that therapist again. I wish I could thank him, but I don’t remember his name.

I went to the library to look for books on meditation. If I was in the modern world I might have looked it up on the internet. But it was 1999. If there even was an internet back then, I wasn’t on it. The first book I read was “Meditation in Action” by Chogyam Trungpa. Soon after that I read “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

I tried it. I started meditating every day and after a while it worked. I could focus. I could manage my anxiety and stop ruminating all the time. Anxiety became something I could manage. It was really really good for me.

In these books I learned a little bit about Buddhism. There wasn’t all that much information in these books, but they laid a foundation for me.

And I read “The Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac. I had read “On the Road” in high school and I had enjoyed it a great deal. It was his followup to “On the Road”. It was on a list of books about meditation, but it probably didn’t belong there. It’s a fictionalized account of his life as a Buddhist in America in the middle of the twentieth century. There’s a few things Kerouac didn’t exactly get right in writing about Buddhism. This is because at the time they really didn’t have the amount of scholarship that we have now. But, in spite of this it’s a work of genius. It’s my favorite book, by far. I think it’s more responsible than anything else, with the possible exception of my parents deaths, for the path that I’m on now. It’s not a very good introduction to Buddhism, but it presents a level of enthusiasm for the path that few books can match.

One more really significant thing happened during my college years. I took a World Religions class. We had a unit on Buddhism. It was actually one of the main units in the class. That’s where I was pulled in. I got to learn about it in a classroom setting instead of simply reading about it. I learned about the different traditions and lineages.

The Four Noble Truths really spoke to me.

I had learned a lot about suffering and impermanence at an earlier age than most. And the Buddha taught the truth of suffering and the way out of suffering.

It was what I really needed.

Something about the Zen tradition really spoke to me too. I started for looking for more information. I started reading everything could find about Buddhism, along with continuing my daily meditation practice.

By the end of college I was calling myself a Buddhist.

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