Thursday, June 19, 2008

Peanut Butter and the Buddha

The only other time I seriously considered converting, it was to Buddhism.

For six months, I went to study with a Japanese Buddhist monk every Sunday. He lived in a small house which doubled as a temple. The living room and dining room areas had been converted into a simple space for meditation and services.

The sub-type of Buddhism was "Nichiren". There are many types of Buddhism, from Zen, which is more of a philosophy than a religion, to types that worship the Buddha as a god. The Nichiren that I learned was mostly focused on clearing one's mind, however there was a large Buddha statue on the alter and we made offerings to him every day.

First, the monk would lead me in chanting and meditation. I was his only new student at the time. I was not yet allowed in the regular services, in case I screwed up the rituals, so I ended up having one-on-one lessons. Yup, just me and the monk. Sometimes it got intense.

I always had a hard time meditating. I tended to drop off to sleep, and then wake with a start as I started to fall over sideways. The monk had his eyes closed, so I don't think he noticed. Lucky for me I wasn't in Japan, where the teachers march between rows of students with a stick, whacking anyone who's looking dozy.

After we completed our practice, we would retire to the kitchen. He made green tea for us and always put out a plate of adorable little Japanese cakes. Before we ate, we had to offer one to the Buddha, by placing it on his plate on the alter. One time I brought some peanut-butter cookies that my mom had baked. I was especially pleased to offer a peanut-butter cookie to the Buddha on behalf of my mom. I told her about it later and she approved.

Funny things stick with me from those lessons, eight years ago. For example, I know you had to remove your shoes and then enter the temple area with the correct foot first, but I can't recall if it's the left or the right.

The monk always offered me a verbal lesson as we drank tea in the kitchen, but all I remember is my shock when I found out he used to be a professional mountain climber/climbing guide in the Himalayas before becoming a monk in Canada. He pronounced it "Himalayers". I gained a new respect for him that day.

I remember the units of cosmic time measurement referred to in the Nichiren teachings. Wikipedia offers an alternate definition , but this is how I was taught to define a kalpa . If you built a castle a hundred miles long, a hundred miles wide, and a hundred miles high; filled it to the brim with poppy seeds; and then removed one poppy seed every hundred thousand years; a kalpa is the length of time it would take to empty the castle.

Buddhism was interesting, and I genuinely desired to attain enlightenment, but somehow it just didn't click for me. I was a rotten meditator, always falling asleep or getting distracted. I found the philosophy gave me a helpful perspective on life, but there wasn't enough of a focus on love to suit my personal taste.

As I got to know the monk, I increasingly saw how he worked to maintain an aura of mystery, but he was really just a regular guy. Once, when the clocks changed for daylight savings time, I showed up an hour early and he answered the door in a grey track suit instead of his usual imposing, black kimono. Another time he bragged to me about how harshly he'd berated one of his advanced students for a supposed disrespect. My perception was that he was just stroking his own ego. I wouldn't have minded him being just a regular guy - it was his efforts to fake me out and impress me that made me cynical.

And so, I gave up going to the temple. I don't regret the experience.

I find there are a lot of valuable truths in the areas where Eastern and Western religions meet and overlap. I've been reading books by Christian authors who express sentiments that would be equally at home in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. It's neat to see how it all fits together.


unsigned said...

Rub my belly... It's good luck! Ha Ha Ha...

Warped Mind of Ron said...

You've struck on my reason for abstaining from religion, or organized religion. It always seems that someone tries to trick you somehow. Whether it be for money, respect power or a combo of all of that. At some point I figured out that other humans know as much about God as I do and they just try to make you think like they do. Don't get me wrong all the religious books and philosophies are good things, but there are also a lot of things stuck in to take choice, power or money away from you. I decided that I will choose my own path and celebrate it as I choose and at some point when I die I will discuss the finer points with whatever higher being I find. To thine own self be true.

Karen said...

It is impressive that you devoted so much time to the study of any religion.

I think if you have the feeling that you are being tricked, it is not right for you. I read Ron's comment and I think that is where "faith" comes in. If have faith in whatever you believe, you never feel like someone is taking advantage of you.

jameil1922 said...

don't let charlatans distract you from Christianity. you'll find them in every religion. "pastors" and "ministers" who take advantage of their flock and try to build themselves higher than God INFURIATE ME!! have you read eat, pray love? i like it a lot. part of the time she spends it at an ashram doing lots of meditation.

whatigotsofar said...

My father has a weird obsession with the Buddha. He is not Buddhist, far from it. But he adorns his house with statues of the Buddha. At one point, he had this idea. He went to an Asian garden centre and asked if there were any Buddha statues that spit water out of the mouth like a fountain. The person working at the garden centre told him no and that no such statue/fountain should exist. When my father got home, he told me about his search for the spitting Buddha fountain. It was then that I informed him that his idea would be equal to a crucifix with water shooting from the stigmata. Life with my father is never dull.

Warped Mind of Ron said...



I can just picture a spitting buddha right next to the crucifix along with a wide assortment of blasphemous lawn ornaments.

girlinterrupted1218 said...

You have had some very interesting religious experiences. I admire that. Although I'm not religious at all, it always impresses me how those who are, are always striving for that peace and enlightenment. Well not all but you know what I mean...

Dianne said...

I've been reading a bit about Buddhism in my own search.

I hate that they smack the dozing students with sticks - what is it with representatives of religion and this need to punish?

I admire all you've done on your journey.

I can't meditate either. I don't fall asleep, I fidget. It's just not me. I can deep breathe and cleanse and I can stand still in my yard and stare at the sky.

I then picture a thin beam of light connecting me to the universe. Always makes me feel better and calmer.

Jenski said...

You amaze me with how you have explored religion and spirituality so well. I think I would be the student tipping over asleep and getting wacked too. Green tea and cookies sounds like a wonderful way to transition from meditation back to the present!

Nilsa S. said...

Sometimes it takes figuring out what's not for you before you realize what is the right fit. Seems like you gave Buddhism a valid try and moved on. There's plenty to gain from that!

whatigotsofar said...

Oh, and I forgot about the other blaspheming Buddha statue my dad has. He's got this other statue, in doors and on the wall behind it are two antique rifles hanging in opposite directions making an 'X'. So, when you think Buddha, think antique weaponry.

San said...

Red, I loved reading this bit of your personal history. I too would have had a difficult time with the ego-driven qualities of the monk. I too would remember the peanut cookie offering with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Thank you for introducing me to the concept of kalpa--such a scientific/poetic meshing of space and time. Lovely. And inspiring. Your post is inspiring too.

Sparkling Red said...

Unsigned: *rub rub*
Betcha didn't think I would do it! I hope you're not ticklish.

Ron: Organized religion is truly riddled with flaws. That being said, there are genuine people out there, mixed in with the jerks. I'll never find a perfect religious community, but if I can find one that's good enough, I'll be happy. I want to share my spiritual experience with others, because it's a warm and friendly feeling to do so. Finding the right people is going to be one of my challenges.

Karen: You really hit the nail on the head. Now that I feel a personal spiritual connection, I don't have to rely on someone else to lead me there. I don't need answers so much as support and companionship from other seekers.

Jameil: Yes, I have read Eat, Pray, Love and I was very affected by it. I still remember that scene in the ashram where she finally met God within her meditation. Awesome. Everyone's path is different, and when you start making progress, it's amazing.

Whatigotsofar: That's hilarious! I should meet your father someday. He sounds like a going concern.
I'm picturing some Orthodox Jewish garden gnomes to complete your landscaping. They'd have big, black, fur-trimmed hats instead of red pointy ones, and long curls over their ears.

Sparkling Red said...

GirlInterrupted: I shall graciously accept your compliment, but I don't know how admirable my search is. The intensity of my seeking doesn't represent inherent goodness in my character, but instead reflects the depths of my previous desperation. Well, at least I didn't take up boozing to soothe the pain.

Dianne: I like that "thin beam of light" idea. It has a good feel to it. :-)

Jenski: I do miss those little tea-cakes. Funny. Buddhism isn't known for its food. Maybe it's been bred into me to associate food and religion, since Jewish cooking has always been such a big deal in my family. Mmm... matzoh balls... I'm still allowed to eat those even if I convert, right?

Nilsa: That experience provided a good basis for comparison. I like to really give something a proper try before I accept or reject it.

WIGSF: I'm starting to think that your dad needs his own design show. Some people would pay good money for shocking and irreverent home accessories.

San: You're most welcome. I'd like to introduce the Kalpa into English usage. Although I wouldn't want to de-mystify it too much. "Mom! Tell Drew to get out of the bathroom! He's been in there for a kalpa!"

Keera Ann Fox said...

I love the description of the kalpa! Downright pretty!

I keep looking and trying and wondering, too, and have attended so many courses and read so many books, I no longer remember where I picked anything up. You don't know how admireable your search is, you say. I'd say it's not only admireable to keep looking for what will make one happy, but also vital. Too many people settle down in systems where someone else tells them what to think or believe, and can't understand why that isn't making them feel good.

Here is a signpost for any of you looking for the big answer to your big questions: When you experience joy, pure joy, you're on the right path.

whatigotsofar said...

According to the US Customs and Border service, he is an interior designer. He isn't really one, okay, sort of, he is, but not so much with accessory pieces like Buddha statues and decorative guns. Long story short, he gets to drive a fancy car partly because people trust his opinions on how their homes should look.

Aurora said...

I agree with Jameil that charlatans are present in every religion. I guess it's a good place to fake things, since there is something important to actually fake.

I also went through a time of being really fascinated with Buddhism and went to a zen temple a few times. It was pretty cool. They didn't lock people out for fear of getting the rituals wrong, either.