How I became a Buddhist /3

Alistair at Wat Pah Nanachat

This is part 3 of a long essay I wrote back in the Noughties about my discovery of Buddhism. I’ve travelled quite a long way within the Buddhist landscape since then but it’s a lovely snap shot of that bright, excited space of being a new Refugee in the Buddhist community…

Part 3: Finding my Religion

That sense of community was very important when I finally decided to become a Buddhist lock, stock and barrel.

It took an awful lot of humming and hawing. I don’t naturally incline to joining things. I’m not really a club person, nor do I readily engage in team sports. So the idea of “signing up” to a religious grouping seemed anathema to me.

Modern British culture has a feverish fear of anything other than pure consumerism

The time up on Holy Island was decisive in many ways. Seeing those happy, wholesome people unashamedly subscribing to Buddhism made it more palatable. If a 29 year old plasterer from Birmingham was cool with taking the robes – then it was probably OK for me to be a bit more connected.

And I began to notice how stigmatized the “spiritual” was in my world. So many of my friends and family visibly shrank away when anybody mentioned the words God, spirit, heart, love, compassion. It’s as if modern British society has a feverish fear of anything less than pure hard-headed consumerism.

Gradually I began to see that many people I knew did have closet spiritual sides and that very occasionally, in a guilty whisper or a drunken moment they would admit to having occasionally experimented with prayer or meditation or even – heaven forbid! – Church. And then I started to cultivate friendships where that was an aspect and meet more and more people who were unashamedly in touch with that side of themselves.

I realized how fossilized and dead-souled I’d become in my 20s.

Refuge: the traditional moment where you become a card-carrying Buddhist

So I booked another retreat, this time at the mother Monastery to Holy Island, Samye Ling on the mainland of Scotland, in Dumfries.

This is a full-on Tibetan Centre with elaborate chanting through the day in an ornate and garish Tibetan Temple, spendidly orgiastic in its reds and maroons and blues and golds and greens. It’s a busy, bustling place with lots of monks and nuns and lots of laypeople. And I was there over Christmas and New Year which made it extra busy. But attending the daily course in the basics of Buddhism and hanging out with the participants in the fantastically well-stocked tea room made me feel tentatively part of something. I was doing lots of silent meditation in my room – 4 to 5 hours a day – and really pummelling my mind trying out these new Buddhist ideas for size.

At the end of the week – on New Year’s Day – there was going to be a Refuge Ceremony. This is the traditional moment when you become a card-carrying Buddhist. It’s the initiation if you like. In many ways it’s not such a big thing – the recitation of 3 lines, taking refuge in the Buddha, his teachings and those that follow them – but I turned it into a huge existential choice.

Did I really want to subscribe to another set of beliefs? Did I want to give up my independent, enquiring mind? Did I want to join a cult?

I simply said ‘Yes’ to something for once in my life

I to-ed and fro-ed, decided against it and then did it anyway at the last minute.

It was a wonderful moment. Surrendering that cursed sense of “independence” which is actually just a fearful isolation. Nothing changed by my doing that sweet little ceremony in front of the monastery’s genial abbot, Lama Yeshe. I didn’t become a robot, I didn’t lose a jot of personality or independence. I simply said “yes” to something for once in my life. I admitted that I wanted to subscribe to something wholeheartedly. Even if I didn’t understand every aspect of Buddhism, I acknowledged that the general direction these people were taking was a good one. I did want to become more compassionate, more connected, more content. Why shouldn’t I subscribe?

That evening, on a very snowy New Years Eve, after we’d lit 10,000 thousand butterlamps for world peace, and I’d been congratulated by all and sundry for taking Refuge, I snuck off into the candy-coloured Temple for a late-night sit – my favorite time to be there. The Hall is mostly dark except for the deep red wall covered with hundreds of alcoves containing golden Buddha figures, each one lit up and surrounding one huge luminous one in the centre. Sitting there in a deep, smiling concentrated peacefulness, I understood that being part of a Team is the natural order of things.

It didn’t matter I wasn’t enlightened. It mattered I was pointing the right way

The West has bred us up to value Independence above all things. Individuality, the myth of the Man Alone. But that’s not the only way – or indeed the desirable way. We’re all in it together… and instead of eyeing all those Buddhists with suspicion – were they trying to brainwash me? Was Lama Yeshe a fraud? – I relaxed into the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, everyone was pointing the same way, heading in the same direction, towards happiness, and that rather than competing we’re all part of a team. Some are in front, some behind but we’re all in it together so the leaders help the stragglers and the stragglers push forward to become the new leaders.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t Enlightened right now in that Shrine Room. It mattered that I was pointing the right way.

I travelled to Thailand and spent days in my little first hut with one meal a day

I could go on at almost infinite length about my various experiences of Buddhism and the manifold benefits and insights it’s given me as I’ve explored it. But space dictates I draw to a close.

Needless to say, after taking Refuge at Samye Ling, I continued meditating avidly and became more inquisitive about the different kinds of Buddhism and the very many excellent teachings out there.

I didn’t stay with the Tibetan tradition in the end. I spent a lot more time down in West Sussex with the monks and nuns of the Theravadan, Thai Forest tradition in Chithurst. The austerer, silent meditation they practised seemed more conducive to my temperement. I even travelled to NE Thailand to visit the monastery set up by the founding Thai monk, Ajahn Chah and spent 10 days in the forest in my little hut with only one meal at 8 o’clock in the morning to break up the day.

I go up to Holy Island regularly and have worked with the community up there. This year I’m teaching a course in Beginners Meditation. And recently I’ve been spending time with the more ecumenical Buddhists at Gaia House down in Devon.

The joy of Buddhism is that it requires no belief. It’s not a religion where you have to believe things.

But wherever I’ve studied or meditated or retreated, I’ve been impressed by the coherence of Buddhism as a philosophy. To me there seems so much contradiction and wooliness in the teaching of other religions – Buddhism is compedious and clear. Each teaching and teacher is there to intensify the meditative experience and clarify the path to greater and greater happiness.

There are thousands of wonderful teachers out in the world. Many in America. What follows is a very selective list of the the ones that I’ve come across and liked. I think the most important teaching of the Buddha was his last: Be a lamp unto yourself. You have to explore the philosophy under your own steam Never take teaching on board without question. Try it on for size and if it doesn’t fit, try something else. The joy of Buddhism is that it requires no belief. It is not a religion where you have to believe things; everything it espouses can be tested by human beings and found to be beneficial or not. It’s about action not faith.

If any of the books or teachings I’ve read connect with you, then great, follow where they lead. Otherwise, find other books or teachers and follow them. I wish you great happiness in whatever you choose.

Books:

Ajahn AmaroSilent Rain (free distribution see Forest Sangha website) Small Boat, Great Mountain
Stephen BatchelorBuddhism Without Beliefs
Charlotte Joko BeckEveryday Zen   Nothing Special
David BrazierThe New Buddhism
Pema ChödrönWhen Things Fall Apart
The Dalai Lamaand CutlerThe Art of Happiness
Guy ClaxtonThe Heart of Buddhism
Mark EpsteinGoing to Pieces without Falling Apart  
Thoughts without a Thinker
GampopaGems of Dharma
Thich Nhat HanThe Miracle of Mindfulness  
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
Natalie GoldbergWild Mind  
Long Quiet Highway
Ayya KhemaBeing Nobody, Going Nowhere
Wes NiskerBuddha’s Nature
Jean Smith (ed.)Breath Sweeps the Mind  
Everyday Mind Radiant Mind
ShantidevaThe Way of the Boddhisatva (Shambala)
Sogyal RinpocheThe Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Sharon SalzbergLovingkindness
Ajahn SucittoKalyana (free distribution see Forest Sangha website)
Ajahn SumedhoThe Mind & the Way
Shunryu SuzukiZen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Thannisaro BikkhuMeditations (free distrubtion, Access to Insight site)   Wings to Awakening
Gay Watson (ed.)The Psychology of Awakening
Claude Whitmyer (ed.)Mindfulness and Meaningful Work

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Teachers

Lama Yeshe in Samye Ling

Lama Zangmo at London Samye Dzong

Ajahn Sucitto at Chithurst

Ajahn Amaro at Abhayagiri

Thanissaro Bhikku at Wat Meta

Stephen and Martine Batchelor at Gaia House

Joseph Goldstein at IMS

Sharon Salzberg at IMS

Thich Nhat Han at Plum Village

Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock

Charlotte Joko Beck at San Diego Zen Center

Websites:

Access to Insight 

Forest Sangha 

Samye Ling

Holy Island

Samye Dzong

IMS 

BuddhaNet


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