What led you to Buddhism?

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.

Monty McKeever

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dharma.arte's picture

Although I had already read some Zen books, and been to a Zen center, I've become a more dedicated student and practitioner after having some vocal technique classes with a teacher that used some techniques he had learned from Tibetan Buddhism, and had as a "bible" a book called "Dharma art".

It was a very powerful experience. He had this approach but students sang whatever they wanted (in my case, Brazilian bossa-nova and American jazz). I had never thought of singing, and for me "it worked"!

Then I became more familiar with the so called dharma art teachings, and with its author and his teachings, and then a student and practitioner.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting!

turcanik's picture

From a cursory view of the stories so far, it seems the Catholic church has created more Buddhists than most Buddhist schools! I am one more that started life in a Catholic family, and tried very hard to believe. But, I never got straight, complete, logical answers to the fundamental questions. My search through the other religions, primarily Christian, in the area I grew up, Northern California in the 50's & 60's, revealed nothing different, so I made up my own religion. At that time there was really nothing about other religions easily available, especially if one believed that even reading sacrilegious texts was going to result in eternal punishment. The basis of my religion was formed from various classical philosophical readings and ideas gleaned from one science fiction book in particular, "Stranger in a Strange Land." I set up an alter with offerings of incense, candle, food, water, bell, greens, and a box with a text displayed that I recited morning and evening. That text was the prayer of St. Francis, this particular one I found in my fathers room after he died. It is on a shelf on my desk as I write this. While the sentiment in that prayer is one I still aspire to, I found that relying on that "Lord" for the power to accomplish that life mission was just not working. When I converted to Buddhism, all that changed was the text in the box and the focus for my prayer.

A philosophical discussion with a friend led me to meeting the person who introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. I received the Gohonzon (object of devotion) through the Soka Gakkai (http://www.sgi.org/) shortly after and practiced off and on for about 10 years before I had a life changing crisis that demonstrated the value of consistent Buddhist Practice. That crisis was over 30 years ago and I have not missed practice for a whole day since then. I'm very fortunate that my wife also practices (and encourages me) and my other family members have either practiced or are not opposed. For those who are encountering opposition I would pray that their peace and happiness will eventually overcome the opposition of their families.

Over these years of practice so much has changed about myself and how I view my relationship with everything else that I can hardly believe the stupid ways I used to think and act. At the same time I know that in 10 years I will be able to make that statement looking back to what I'm doing now. My happiness is knowing that karma is changing now. Enlightenment is a process.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting turcanik. Thanks for the wise words.

Dominic Gomez's picture

>it seems the Catholic church has created more Buddhists than most Buddhist schools<
My observation as well. Could it be that sumptuously ornate altars, mystical ritual and other-worldly priests echo those of certain sects of Buddhism, albeit directed toward a different object of worship?

turcanik's picture

I can only respond from my personal experience, so in this case the ritual, priests, and ornate alters, etc., really played no part. Nichiren Buddhism lacks most of that and is a much more active and engaged spiritual pursuit involving daily practice and frequent discussion meetings. I think the answer is really much more simple than most of those proposed, and while each individual is bound to have as varied a reason for behavior in this realm as any other, the simple fact is that there are a lot more Catholics around and they are not getting what they need from that religion. Once a search for an alternative begins, one is already on the path of a Buddha.

108Adams's picture

Far from that. Consider the fact most catholics => buddhism converts (at least most catholics I have heard of) go usually the zen way :) The problem is in the lack of method: the Roman (important, not Orthodox!!) Church lacks the way to treat with people who search deeper in the mystic direction, who read Filokalia, who find T. Merton and The Desert Fathers. It is now, when we can watch the ongoing revolution in Benedictines' monasteries with L. Freeman OSB and his WCCM, but meditation and individual work is still considered suspicious outside closed orders like Carmelites.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I had in mind more what your average lay-person (Buddhist or otherwise) can wrap his or her mind around. Most of us can afford just a bit of time outside work, family, the daily business of living to spend on "deep searching in the mystic direction". It's a luxury more available to professional clerics, priests, monks and some retired senior citizens.
But the appearance that certain classes of people (priests, Benedictine or Buddhist monks, etc.) put on leads one to think that they are in direct communication with "God" or "Buddha", while the rest of us need to go through them and their mysterious rituals in order to be on the same page.

108Adams's picture

Sorry for my misunderstanding, I found your reply pointing at the reason of conversion (based on the attractiveness of the ritual), not at the similarity. But I would not underestimate the "searching" considering it's roots: looking for some kind of relief. I think this is the base for most of the entries here: regardless the fact one is Jewish, Catholic, Protestant or his/her tradition is somewhere else, they (we) all find themselves one time in a state of heavy dissonance, and the "Buddhist way" fits the keyhole. So the searching is not a luxury, it is ongoing process present all the time, sometimes in background, sometimes more apparent, esp. during the times of dissonance; it's a property of the human being, the instinct reply to the First Noble Truth. And "deep" is in fact meaningless, because the searching is exactly as deep, as you need, for one it's reading Hardcore Zen and Dharma Punx, for the other it's Philokalia or Nagarjuna, or maybe "Be a Buddhist mom".

P.S. The REAL question here is "Are the confessions here different in any way from the confessions of converted Christians/Muslims etc. on a parallel forums" ;)

ToonForever's picture

"Are the confessions here different in any way from the confessions of converted Christians/Muslims etc. on a parallel forums"

LOL, I imagine so - they probably aren't so eternally heavy-duty :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Searching" is so ingrained in the human psyche as to seem universally hard-wired in our species. Such may be the raison d'être for religion...any religion. The only differences being the way "suffering" (i.e. samsara, the vicissitudes of life) is perceived and managed by each belief system.

Enkyo Roshi's picture

Sixteen years old, read my first haiku, then Paul Reps, then Zen and Archery… the books promised spontaneity and freedom. What a great idea. And like any idea, it floated above me for years until I FINALLY SAT DOWN. And what a revelation! Everything I was looking for, was always right here. With great gratitude to Teachers Suzuki, Loori, Maezumi, Glassman, now I just want to also offer the seat.

Monty McKeever's picture

thanks Enkyo!

108Adams's picture

I had already been searching for some years, going really deep into the Catholic way (in Poland it's obvious first choice). Then, during the Ash Wednesday's Penance an old monk (Carmelite, which shows the direction of my searchings...) asked THE questions. In 5 minutes he destroyed all my delusions, acting the exact way zen master is supposed to do (despite his intentions...). I was left in the state of silence, and then "Everyday zen" by Ch. Joko Beck came to my way, together with "Waking Up To What You Do" Diane Eshin Rizzetto (who accepted me eventually as her student). Than many others... So, sometimes I say that the God answered my prayers for the path to follow, giving me zen :)

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting 108Adams, very interesting indeed!

cedombek's picture

For me there were 2 defining moments. Of my 55 years, I know that 30+ have been studying Buddhism as a philosophical context. It was reading Siddhartha as a high school sophomore that led me to this initially. It was the events immediately following 9/11 that led me to the practice of Buddhism as faith as I watched those around me who professed being Christian call for a Crusade against Islam. Since that moment I have practiced, meditated and studied the Pali Canon. My biggest regret is that, owing to my travel schedule, I have not taken a formal refuge to any one school. I have said the words and perhaps that is enough.

Monty McKeever's picture

thanks for posting cedombek. I wish you the best with your continued studies. I personally am an advocate of formally taking refuge, but the path is different for different people it seems.

monthibbard@gmail.com's picture

There is certainly nothing unique to my story. I learned to meditate in 1977 and practice only a couple years. A long history of depression led me to a therapist who moved me into “The Mindful Way Through Depression". Meditation came back easily, and now with direction and intent. Six months without a episode of depression suggests it is time to take my practice to higher level of commitment. Additionally, I had the opportunity to visit Lhasa summer of 2010. The perseverance of the Tibetans in the face of such clear repression was powerfully moving. I, too, have become disenfranchised by the hypocrisy of western religions. I’d like to share one bright spot--having shared my meditation practice with my mother, she felt a need to talk to her minister about me. His response was delightful, “He is in a good place. Leave him alone.” I have to say I feel a bit overwhelmed for next steps living in a small western town with no Community to help.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting Mont (hey, that's [kind of] my name too!). The minister you mention sounds like a great guy. I am sorry to hear about the lack of community in your area, I'm glad you're here.

edunbar's picture

Postscript: During my period of depression one of my dear friends gave me a mantra of sorts: "Feel your feelings, and be gentle with yourself and gentle with others." That served as a guide.

edunbar's picture

I was brought up in a evangelical, fairly fundamentalist family and community. My main motivation for making a 'commitment to Christ' at age 12 was fear of going to a literal, physical hell. At the time I also thought I believed in the doctrines, including the uniqueness of Jesus as =the= Son of God.

After graduating university in Biology (of all subjects!), I had abandoned previous thoughts and plans of either medicine and (especially) marine biology, and joined the full-time staff of Campus Crusade for Christ and worked as regular staff at University of Toronto and University of Western Ontario.

I got really banged up by that experience, and felt that treatment of staff by the executive of the organization contributed to a growing and ultimately debilitating anger.

Several years later, a divorce and another failed relationship (the latter with someone I deeply loved) was the result, and I reached the end of my rope. I was in deep depression, and when the initial dosage for a script for an anti-depressant, wasn't really doing much, I told my doctor the dosage needed to be increased because I didn't feel like going on. Fortunately, that worked, and with the help of friends who would both listen and offer insight, I started to heal.

My post-divorce partner had been attracted to Buddhism, and I credit her for starting me on that path. It was the example of the Dalai Lama's compassion that kept me interested. After a bit of reading and a fair amount of reflection, I eventually went to the Intro to Zen workshop at the Rochester Zen Center. Even entering the centre, I "knew" that I had found my home, and I have been on the path ever since.

Like others here, the most influential book has been Zen Mind Beginner's mind. If I had only one text (other than sutras,) that would be the book I would keep.


Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting Earl. Be well.

JanineC's picture

I was being very hard on myself one day and my sister said 'why dont you show yourself some kindness and give yourself a break?' - something resonated and the words 'lovingkindness' came into my mind, I dont know where from. I looked them up on the internet and discovered the practice of metta. From this I became interested in Buddhism and havent looked back. I must mention that I started mediatating to try to attain peace and calm which seems quite funny to me now, as much of my meditation has been spent confronting my suffering rather than floating off on a cloud of tranquility! Its such a wonderful process. I am constantly amazed to see how I create my own suffering. Its been such an education, and very much an ongoing progess. janine

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting Janine. I think it's great you began to practice due to such a quick burst of inspiration. Your post is a good teaching about what can happen when we are present and pay attention to our intuition.

mike4metta's picture

Excellent discussion threads here. If ugly christian extremism/fundamentalist beliefs and jingoism never came into being and had also never also permeated so-called "mainstream" christianity, I suppose I'd still be sitting through church, semi-disinterested, but not to the point of leaving it.

Instead, offended and repulsed by the right wing political christian influence even in that church whose affiliation has a reputation for being moderate, I found christianity itself to be untenable and rejected it outright.

Thankfully several years ago I attended a free online course on Buddhism which used Surya Das' "Awakening the Buddha Within" and "Awakening to the Sacred" - which were a pretty good books to introduce Buddhism to an ex-christian who had let go of that baggage for good. I've been a Buddhist practitioner since :)

For other christians who are questioning their god and christianity, doubting christians, christians who reject fundamentalism, for whom this message rings true I encourage you to read "The Accidental Buddhist" by Dinty Moore (no relation to the canned stew company :) and then "Mindfulness in Plain English" by Bhante Gunaratana. Happy journey to a new spiritual life that can fulfill you in a way christianity simply cannot.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting mike4metta. Another book you may find interesting is, "How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not" by Clark Strand, one of our contributing editors who does a lot of interfaith worj.

mike4metta's picture

Thanks Monty. I took a look at Clark Strand's book on Amazon. It seems to me that the Bible is whatever the reader wants it to be. The Bible as read by Buddhists well trained in "no self" like Clark Strand, and for that matter Thich Nhat Hanh (Living Buddha, Living Christ), will take on a profoundly different (and inclusive) meaning than that of a typical Christian. And I'd better leave the commentary off right there. ;-)

mlemon's picture

I too, was raised christian, Presbyterian actually. It never really made sense to me, but I went along. It was not until my mid fifties that things got bad enough. I had a "year from hell" as they say. After a series of panic attacks I decided to talk to a woman who was known for good advice at a Unitarian church. I don't know her name and she moved away shortly after. We spoke on the phone for over an hour, maybe two, or rather I spoke to her. She told me to just talk until I was talked out. At the end she said "You do realize that you're Buddhist don't you?" I had no idea about Buddhism but apparently I had come to some of the main conclusions on my own. Part of my anxiety was around my experience that I didn't know anyone else who saw things this way. I thought I was going mad.

I did a general search on line and felt at home immediately!

The next step was a six-week on-line meditation course with daily assignments and contact with participants all over the world. I found Ajahn Brahmin and Gil Fronsdale on line too and have learned much from them. The internet has been a major source for me, even though I live in a very Buddhist friendly city and there are lots of options for sitting groups and visiting speakers. Thanisarro Bhikkhu, has been a big influence as well. I think of Ajahn Chah as a major influence, as I have been influenced by so many of his students. I discovered a Therevada monastery nearby and go whenever I can arrange it.

Tricycle is also a wonderful resource. Thank you for this opportunity to write and to read so many stories about other's experiences. Oddly enough I am grateful for that year from he'll and that one voice on the phone, prompting me in the "right" direction.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting mlemon. Indeed, it is astounding what an impact a little bit of sound advice can have.

sjnigro's picture

The Twelve Steps led me to seek a Higher Power, I began to study various religions/philosophies and Buddhism was the best fit to Good Orderly Direction as I understand it. This understanding is in constant flux but also consistently secure.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thank you for commenting sjnigro.

jdgranneman's picture

Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das is what started me on the Buddhist Path. Afterwards I have had visions of the Buddha as it were. Currently studying Tenzing Wangyal Rinpoche and Longchen Rabjam.

Monty McKeever's picture

thanks for posting jdgranneman.

mkwart's picture

I turned to Buddhism after 12 years of Catholic school-- I decided to think for myself. Few books on Buddhism were around. What finally hooked me was Eugene Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery. It captivated my mind--"what is it that shoots the arrow and hits the mark?" Also D.T. Suzuki's book on Zen Buddhism--I brought it along on my first backpacking trip in 1971 in Yosemite. Backpacking showed me monkey mind first hand--my brain raced in myriad thoughts as I walked in silence in the backcountry. Then I read Paul Reps and Philip Kaplan and obscure compilations of koan stories with weird names like the iron flute with no holes played upside down. I was really into absurdity and conundrums and that attracted me. I had a boyfriend in 1970 when I was 18 years old who had adopted Buddhism at a prison in California--he introduced me to Zen koans. So prison dharma has had its influence.

Monty McKeever's picture

thank you mkwart.

oceanfarers's picture

PS Thanks for asking the question.

Monty McKeever's picture

you're very welcome.

oceanfarers's picture

I had an accident and broke several ribs - badly. I was completely bedridden and unable to move an inch and in the most intolerable pain imaginable. It was like I was completely pinned down and subjected to waves of bonecrunching. For some reason I had stocked up on some buddhist litarature just a month prior. I was bored, desperate and lonely. I read stories about buddhist practitioners gaining freedom within the most intolerable circumstances. Like on death row. Or when a loved one dies. It was so easy to focus with the pain present. From their stories I learnt that the only freedom was to surrender and to dedicate my suffering in the hope it could benefit all. In fact I didn't really have a choice at all. Like water flowing I had to find the path of least resistance. Once I could get on my feet again I looked into the mirror and was shocked at how much younger I looked.

Monty McKeever's picture

Ay! That sounds terrible oceanfarers! I'm happy you were able to find the dharma in the midst of such suffering though.

gdcrane's picture

I first found out about Buddism from the book Zen Catholicism by Dom Aelred Graham wheich I read when I was 14 and a student at Ealing Abbey which is a Benedictine monastery. I had lost my belief in an afterlife and was trying to reconcile what I really believed. That was in 1964 and I found other avenues including existentialism and stoicism, but ended up as a nihilist which I think a lot of us did. I came back to Buddism thru AA after getting sober in 1994. After a period in AA hen I tried to regain a Christian belief, never very satisfactory without belief n resurrection, I got back to the practice thanks to Kevin Griffin's One Breath at a Time and then Stephen Batchelor's Buddism without Belief.
The first time I walked into an AA meeting 18 or so years ago I felt I had come home, when I read Stephen's book I go the same feeling. To me AA nd the Dharma are so intertwined that I often find it hard to seperate them in my thoughts. speech and actions.
I will be forever grateful to Bill Wilson, Stephen Batchelor and Kevin Griffin for bringing me back to life.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thank you for sharing gdcrane.

Chixnugget's picture

There were two books that steered me onto a Buddhist path. One was Pema Chodron's "When Things Fall Apart", that was given to me by my sister when I was going through a divorce and the other was "Awareness" by Anthony DeMello. DeMello was a Jesuit priest from India whose theology was steeped in Eastern tradition. His writings and perspective provided a conceptual bridge from the Christianity I was raised with to the Buddhism I practice now.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for replying chixnugget and for mentioning "Awareness." I am not familiar but it sounds interesting.

Janel33's picture

Buddhism always resonated with me on some level, but it was Tara Brach's book, Radical Acceptance, that began my true spiritual awakening and set me on my current path. I have been privileged to be her student at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington and I am forever grateful for the wisdom and light she has brought into my life with her teachings.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting Janel. Tara Brach is great.

hippiedad's picture

I was in the military at the time as an Armoured Crew Commander and the library truck came around with various milk crates filled with second hand books. Most of the books present would not be considered 'encouraging to good thought'...

Tired of the standard offering, I picked up the the book Buddhism: An Introduction and Guide by Christmas Humphreys. I remember reading the book and thinking that 'these Buddhist are crazy". "If they don't fight for what they believe in then everyone will run all over them." "How could this Buddistness possibly be true?"
I read the book. Over and over again. The point Mr. Humphreys' was suggestion was one of attachment and its meaning to suffering as the central points of Buddhist understanding. I had never heard of such a thing. How could the world work in such a way?
What I had planned to do with my life in the military was a 'correct path' to lead?
Over the following months I found and read more. Within 6 months I had left the military and found the world terrifying and open for what seemed like the first time.

That was over 25 years ago and I have been a Mahayana Buddhist ever since. Metta.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting hippiedad. Metta.

Keith McLachlan's picture

My first exposure to Buddhism was also through Shunryu Suzuki's book "Zen Mind Beginner's Mind." I didn't really get his message, but I sensed something important was in the teachings. Later I read Kapleau's "The Three Pillars of Zen" and Sekida's "Zen Training." These books covered the important aspects of zazen.

Unfortunately, I live in an area, Edmonton, Alberta, that only has Tibetan sanghas. I went several times to one of these groups and I was turned off by talk of reincarnation. I am more interested in improving my meditation and living mindfully that getting into philosophical discussions.

If a sangha along the lines of Thich Nhat Hahn or Joko Beck teachings started here, I would love to join.

Also, I am in the oil field, so starting a sangha myself would be impractical.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting Keith. I'm sorry to hear about the lack of Zendos in Alberta. Who knows though, one may pop up!

SharonSalzberg's picture

I first got interested in the Buddha's teachings in college, in an Asian philosophy course. I heard 2 things in that course that were life changing. One was the Buddha's unafraid, unashamed acknowledgment of the suffering in life, so that suffering didn't seem a cause for isolation or shame. And the other was the Buddha's open invitation, no one left out, to do something about the kinds of suffering we experience through greed, hatred and delusion. Six months later I left for India, to learn meditation.