A common question, “How did you become Buddhist?”

A common question, “How did you become Buddhist?” December 12, 2022

The question comes up once in a while. It’s natural for it to come up and not something I’d ever shy away from.

“How did you first get involved with Buddhism?” a co-worker asked.

It was clear to me that her motivation was simple curiosity. Sometimes when people have asked me questions like that they’ve been hoping to convert me or something. But it’s been a long time since someone came at me with that sort of motivation, I think. This happens because I’m not shy about my religion. I have Buddha statues on my desk at work. I teach classes and lead meditations at the temple that I go to, The Rime Center. I write articles and record podcasts about Buddhism too. I’m about as ‘out of the meditation closet’ (is that an expression?) as a person can be.

Once, a really long time ago, I was afraid people would find out I was practicing Buddhism. That is a really weird thing to look back on. Life is that way sometimes. We look back on what we’ve done and things we’ve been afraid of and we can just think, “Oh, I was being ridiculous.”

It’s a very natural question. We live in a culture with a default religion. Almost everyone I know is Christian. This is probably true for you too if you live in the United States. There’s a lot of variation within that, of course. But the point is that I live in a nation where most people are born into this religion and never change. And I’m not judging that in any way. But the fact is that practicing a religion other than the default one makes you an ‘other’ in this country. A mysterious outsider who has different customs and practices. Okay, maybe it’s not that cool. But the point is I’m never bothered by a question like that. Ask me anything, for real. Most people do not take the path I’ve taken, even if they’re interested in meditation and mind training. And that is okay.

I’ll pray for you, but my prayers are going to look and sound a little bit different than yours do.

So, here’s how I answered:

When I was 19 years old I was on my own. Both my parents were cancer victims and I was starting college. At this time I had terrible anxiety problems. I struggled with some anxiety throughout childhood and when I lost my parents and started college it got really bad. I went to see a therapist, as many people do in that situation. I was prescribed some drugs that did not help me. The pills I took made me a different person, my anxiety and fear went all the way down to zero and I started doing whatever I wanted all the time with no regards to consequences.

That was not good for me.

So I quit taking the pills. I told the therapist that I wasn’t going to take them anymore and he asked if I had tried meditation. I didn’t know what meditation was really. But I decided to go look into it. I got some books from the library and started learning about it. “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and “Meditation in Action” by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche were the books that got me started. These books are about meditation, but they are about Buddhism too. I did start meditating and it did help me a great deal.

But also, that Buddhist undercurrent pulled me in. I went back and got more books. A whole lot of people who explore in the way that I did learn about meditation and never explore any deeper. And that’s okay.

I described it as like falling in love. As soon as I started studying Buddhism, that was it for me. I knew it was the direction I wanted my life to go in. I knew Buddhism was my path. It was like finding a missing piece in my awareness. Once I started reading about the Four Noble Truths I knew these were my truths, that the path laid out for us by the Buddha was my path. I’ve heard people say things like, “Maybe you were a Buddhist in a past life and it’s your karma,” and I don’t know about any of that. I just knew right away that I wanted to practice Buddhism. The basic Buddhist teachings felt 100% true to me.

When I was a kid we never talked about two things in my house. Those things were politics and religion. We went to a Disciples of Christ Church sometimes, but we never talked about it at home. Since then I’ve become aware that plenty of people don’t grow up in that kind of environment. I still don’t know how my parents voted or if they had strong religious beliefs and I sort of like not knowing that.

Did that really pave the way for me to be open to Buddhism? I don’t know and I’ll never know. Buddhism teaches us that all things arise from various causes and conditions. So my inclination toward these teachings certainly came from various causes too.

I practiced and studied on my own for a long time.

I wanted to be a Zen Buddhist. When I was first studying those were the books I liked the best. There isn’t a Zen temple here in Kansas City. I joined a Tibetan Buddhist community called the Rime Center instead, nonsectarian Tibetan Buddhism. For a long time I was the person at the Tibetan temple who wanted to practice Zen. I’ve evolved now. The compassion teachings in the Tibetan tradition won me over. Heart centered Buddhism is the path for me. I did have a Zen teacher that I found after a little while, but I discovered it wasn’t for me. I really was just inspired by the books.

So, that was my rambling answer to that question.

How did I become a Buddhist? When I discovered it I knew immediately that Buddhism was my religion.

Why am I still a Buddhist? I wouldn’t know how to not be one. Buddhism has changed my life for the better in a lot of ways.

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