spiraling up the mountain: thoughts on religion

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                 Yangsi Rinpoche, Land of Medicine Buddha, 2005

~ this is an edited version of an essay I wrote on religion for my “Composition and Critical Thinking” class in the fall of 2015 ~

I was raised by hippies in the 70’s without religion or much spirituality. When I asked my parents at age 8 what religion I belonged to they asked me if I believed Jesus came back from the dead. “Of course not!’ I replied, to which they answered, “Then you’re Jewish!” I thought I was Jewish for many years after that.  My parents don’t remember this story, but it still makes me giggle.

I met my soon-to-be husband at age 18, and he was Lutheran but open-minded, or so I thought. However a few months before our wedding he took me on a picnic in the woods, sat me down, and said if I didn’t believe that the stories such as  Adam and Eve were literally true he was afraid I’d go to hell. This made him hesitant to marry me, as we wouldn’t be together in the afterlife. I was stunned. I said I’d work on it, he was satisfied with that, and it was never spoken of again. A few years later he took a Death, Dying, and Religion class in college and his mind was opened to the possibility of other views, in particular those of the Eastern religions. He shared his insights with me and we both started listening to Allen Watts and seeking.

I was searching for something to give life meaning in an effort to fend of the depression, mental illness, and addiction that plagues my family and which I felt looming in the future. I read many books on Christianity, Kaballah, and Zen Buddism, as well as the works of Deepak Chopra, Ram Dass, and Eckhart Tolle. It wasn’t until I read a book on Tibetan Buddhism and various coincidences led me to a local Tibetan Buddhist center, that I felt I’d finally landed “home”.

The first class I went to seemed to answer the age-old question “why do bad things happen to good people” and vice versa, with its teachings on reincarnation and the law of karma. I was already familiar and open to these concepts and apparently Lamas, monks, and nuns in Tibet had been studying and meditating on them for centuries. Learning that they were also studying and meditating on how to practice controlling our karma and how to die, combined with the fact that the well- known and respected Dalai Lama was the head of the center I was attending, had me sold.

When I attended my first teaching with an actual reincarnated Lama I had no expectations. Yet even though he spoke no English, I experienced a transcendental experience that affected me for weeks. It was the first of many. My only explanation was that these Lamas were magical, and I wanted what they had. I learned from them how to gain similar insights and experiences through my own meditations and practices. There may be a more scientific explanation. According to Sharon Begley, a senior science writer for the Boston Globe, “the brain has a region, the parietal lobe, that detects where our body physically ends and the larger world begins. But this circuitry can be silenced by intense prayer or meditation, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has found, producing a sense of oneness with the cosmos or God.” (1) Whatever the explanation, I subsequently dove deep into the teachings, practices, and rituals. I met my own personal Lama and received instructions and guidance on my practice.

As I tried to remain open-minded and to believe other religions could lead to the same result, I was aware that deep down I was starting to believe the path I was on was the only one to lead to full liberation and enlightenment. I was resistant to becoming a fundamentalist, because it seemed contradictory to the teachings I was receiving. What I loved about the tradition was its inclusive nature and encouragement to question everything, yet there were certain aspects that felt and sounded like dogma to me. For example, in some texts it was written that if one doesn’t keep one’s altar dust-free negative karma is created.

The interesting thing about Tibetan Buddhism is that it’s the most ritualized and traditional form of Buddhism. Some like to call it the “Catholicism of Buddhism”. Those familiar with Zen are often taken aback by all the different deities, statues, colorful paintings, incense, ritual, and Guru devotion. This was the richness and warmth that originally drew me in. Some Buddhists think it’s materialistic with its reliance on malas (“prayer beads”) and other ritual items. Some say it intellectualizes the teachings too much with its heavy emphases on philosophy, thick texts to study, and passionate debate – too much thinking! Isn’t Buddhism about emptying your mind of thought? I began to doubt.

After a few years the honeymoon period wore off. I felt as though I had been a dry sponge that had soaked up so much so fast it could contain no more. I went to teachings and couldn’t absorb the same words that had previously affected me so profoundly. My meditations and ritual practices became a chore and I was resentful. I stopped doing them entirely and sank into depression. I wondered if I should try something else – the Yoga Path? Wicca? Catholicism? (Because I dearly love Mother Mary and the saints). Buddhism was so negative with all the talk of suffering, I couldn’t enjoy going to the beach or watching a sunset and I became nihilistic. I felt my Lama was disappointed in me.

It’s been four years since I’ve had a daily meditation practice. I frequently ask myself, am I still Buddhist? I believe in the major tenets, so yes. Why such resistance to practicing regularly, or going to teachings? I think I took on too much too soon. And I still question how important it is to keep my altar dust free, although I still have a pretty elaborate (dusty) altar taking up a corner of my bedroom.

I recently watched an interview Oprah Winfrey gave with author and former Catholic monk, Thomas Moore. It was regarding his new book, “A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World” (3). I had the show set to record and the book ordered before it even aired. His premise is that organized religion is on its way out and that humanity’s consciousness is going through a transition. He believes that the spiritual way of the future for the survival and peace of humanity is for people, who are as unique as their fingerprints, to find what gives them a feeling of personal connection to their higher power, the universe, or God if you will, and create a living experiential practice of prayer, ritual, and ceremony to develop and increase that connection. The book arrived too late to read in its entirety and reflect on it in this paper, but what I’ve got so far is that if one’s spiritual practice isn’t developing that connection then maybe it’s not the right one.

This idea really speaks to me, and I’m excited to go back to my Buddhist background and remember what it was that excited me in the early years. But as I think about the rituals that became empty to me I remember my Lama and teachers saying: when they are hard, or boring, you just keep doing them anyway.  Spiritual practice is not always going to feel good – thinking that it will is just another attachment. It’s the same with yoga, exercise, eating healthy – you don’t always want to but you do it anyway and there are breakthroughs. I’m still in the process of reconciling all I learned when I was in the depths of my study and practice and how I can incorporate it into my current life.

What I do believe for sure is the law of karma and that the energy I put out is returned to me, if not in this life than in the next. I believe that nothing is as it appears and that our perceptions are created by our unique karma and are ours alone. I believe that compassion and understanding and love for others is the root of happiness. I believe sitting in meditation, doing long retreats, and reciting hundreds of thousands of mantras can lead to states of mind I hadn’t known existed. I believe the Lamas are magical and can transmit blessings and bliss. I believe in auspicious coincidences. And I believe that dusting my altar with mindfulness and pure intention can feel really, really good.

I think there are pros and cons to following one religion completely to the finish line and creating one’s unique ‘religion’. What works for one person may not work for another, based on their karma, their upbringing, or where they are in their life. We are constantly changing.

My teachers have said that there are many paths up the mountain and they all get to the top. If we constantly switch paths we will be doing spirals up the mountain, and it will take much longer. The other danger of constantly switching paths is that we are listening to our pleasure-seeking ego which doesn’t always know what’s best for us. But there is also a danger to following one religion completely and blindly, as we can see throughout history and in the news on a daily basis. There can be a danger on a personal level as well, if the teachings aren’t questioned and become dogma they won’t affect one in a profound way.

I think the barometer for the value of one’s religion or spirituality can be gauged by whether or not it changes them for the better. I reflect on who I was before I found Buddhism and recognize that I’m more patient, compassionate, and content than I was before. I forgive more easily and have less judgement for those different than me or who harm me. I hold situations and events with a lighter grip through the lens of impermanence and knowing I’m not the center of the universe. The teachings are still very much a part of me and guide how I treat others and myself, regardless how often I meditate. I believe that this is the purpose of any religion or spiritually, ultimately.

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