I am not a Buddhist. I’ve never told anyone that I am a Buddhist and have in fact denied the title on more than one occasion. Even though I have been circling around the stupa for the last ten years, I have never made any formal or official commitment to the Buddha sāsana. I’ve never sown a rakusu or received a “dharma name.” I am, as of this moment, a freelance wanderer through the six realms of samsara.
I was raised in West Michigan to a small family of born-again evangelical protestants. As early as a few weeks after my birth I was sitting on my mom’s lap in one of the world’s first mega-churches. (Although at the time I’m sure it wasn’t as mega as it is now). I loved felt-boards and summer bible camp. I memorized the books of the Old and New Testaments. I attended Awana and filled up my little plastic crown pin with little plastic jewels. This cheap trinket that I wore on a bright red vest represented the authentic crown that I would wear when I finally entered into the presence of God, my dead grandparents and all my recently expired turtles. I anticipated the rapture and feared the Devil. I sang “Jesus loves me this I know” and I did know it. I believed in the literal truth of the Bible before I knew what a metaphor was, and I can remember feeling guilty because I loved my heavenly father more than my earthly one. Over the years I was baptized and rebaptized, committed and recommitted. If there was an alter call, I was answering.
Then one day, while attending a student-oriented bible study, the youth pastor’s wife said something that changed my life. I was eighteen at the time and just about to begin my first semester at Calvin College when a woman I hardly knew said (apropos of what, I don’t recall): “When I can’t sleep, I start to pray and in five minutes, I’m out like a light.” This was followed by nods of affirmation and a hand shot up from the crowd. A very sincere young woman replied, “Just before I came here, I lost my keys. I prayed and five minutes later I found them.”
These two seemingly innocuous statements by semi-strangers planted tiny seeds of doubt in what I thought was a fertile field of Christian faith and piety. Over the next year I replayed these statements over and over and eventually came to two conclusions. 1) I did not want any part of a religion that used God as a sleep aid or as a butler to find lost keys, and 2) there was no reason to believe that God as I currently envisioned him was anything other than a figment of my imagination. It was only a matter of months before I was telling my parents that I was no longer a Christian.
The journey from born-again Christian to wanna-be Buddhist was both long and short. It was short because Buddhism was the first religious tradition I turned to after I ceased to believe in God. It was long because I did not immediately adopt Buddhism as my re-bound faith. I casually flirted with Islam and Hinduism, and had a more serious relationship with Reform Judaism. At my most desperate moments I have to admit I read Ekhart Tolle and even sent away for some Rosicrucian pamphlets. Obviously, I’ve got a lot of faith to give.
Between my brief trysts with Moses and Muhammad, I would always return to Shakyamuni. Five years ago I took my first six-week meditation course and learned how to watch my breath and think non-thinking. I lived in Southern California for a few years and would occasionally attend services at Zen Mountain Center.
Today, I am a graduate student at the University of Iowa, studying the religion and culture of South Asia. I am on the board of directors at the local Zen Center and have spent a few weekends doing all-day zazen. I recently acted as a teaching assistant for a class called Living Religions of the East, and although I love teaching about Hindu, Taoist and Confucian traditions, I love learning about Buddhism. I am becoming—carefully and with as much mindfulness as I can muster—more than what has been dismissively labeled a “bookstore Buddhist.” To me, being a Buddhist means more than just saying you are one. It means placing yourself within the structure of a particular school, a particular lineage and a particular teacher. It means changing your life, not just changing your mind. Since I live in Iowa City and there is no school, lineage or teacher, I am technically not a Buddhist.
On the other hand…
At least once a day I descend the stairs to my basement, bow towards my zabuton and turn clockwise. I bow to the world and then lower myself onto a round black cushion. I light a small tea-light and bow to the Nepali Buddha statue that I bought in Madison. I take refuge in the three jewels. I ring a Tibetan singing bowl three times. I place my hands in the mudra of Vairocana Buddha.
I think non-thinking.
A little while later, I get up.