I would like to hear from community members about what it was that led you to become interested in and/or begin practicing Buddhism.
I know one man who, after a lifetime of being an "overachiever"—getting straight A's throughout his school years and graduating from an Ivy League university at the top of his class—had a full psychological and existential breakdown, feeling that all the knowledge and skill he had gained was useless because, at a very fundamental level, he didn't even know who or what he was. When he began to study dharma and practice meditation he saw that, "there are some things you just can't learn in school."
I know a woman who once believed that she had nothing to offer anyone but her beauty. She became a successful model but in the process began a long struggle with drug addiction. In the throes of depression and thoughts of suicide, she sought guidance from a Buddhist teacher and, after receiving much instruction, saw for the first time that her life didn't have to be about herself. She said, "Waking up, for the first time, to the reality that I am able to care for and help others was what saved my life."
I know a guy who ate LSD and "saw infinity." Then, when he saw the Buddhist symbol known as the "knot of eternity" he thought, they must know. He sought out a Tibetan Buddhist Sangha to "learn the secrets" and while he didn't gain the mind-blowing metaphysical knowledge that he expected, he did begin practicing meditation and striving to cultivate wisdom and compassion. Regarding his quest for infinity, that last I heard him say about this was, "My discursive mind is infinite enough."
I've read letters from people who practice Buddhism in prison, and have always found it both inspiring and heart-breaking to hear from people who are on the path in such circumstances. I recall reading one letter from a woman that was the saddest story I have ever heard. After a lifetime of unspeakable suffering and tragedy, she had been sentenced just after seeing her boyfriend killed. Yet, this letter ended along the lines of "What else am I going to do while I'm here? I've got to deal with this stuff one way or another." After reading everything this woman had lived through, that she was turning to meditation and requesting reading materials to support her practice was astounding to me. While reading this month's Tricycle Book Club selection The Heart of the Revolution by teacher and author Noah Levine, I was struck my Noah's recollection of practicing while locked up:
While in jail for my third felony arrest at a young age, at my father's suggestion I began to meditate. That practice gave me the determination and strength to stop taking drugs and drinking. I turned my attention inward and began the process of healing—a process that continues to this day.
Also, in contrast to the people I have mentioned so far, I think it is important to mention that not everybody arrives at the Buddhist path because of some difficult or extraordinary circumstance. It seems that for some, it just happens, no existential dilemma and tragedy needed. I am reminded of this passage by the late great American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck from her interview, "Life's Not a Problem":
I had a fine life. I was divorced—my husband was mentally ill—but I had a nice man in my life. My kids were okay. I had a good job. And I used to wake up and say, “Is this all there is?”
Then I met Maezumi Roshi, who was a monk at the time. He was giving a talk in the Unitarian Church downtown. I was out for the evening with a friend, a woman, a sort of hard-boiled business type, and we decided to hear his talk. And as we went in, he bowed to each person and looked right at us. It was absolutely direct contact. When we sat down, my friend said to me, “What was that?” He wasn’t doing anything special—except, for once, somebody was paying attention.
I wanted whatever he had.
Please feel free to share your own stories! Is there anyone above that you most identify with? What was it for you? As we work with the present and try to build a better future, there is much that can be learned from examining our past.