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.

best,
Monty McKeever
Tricycle

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NellaLou's picture

Profound discontent and unhappiness in my teens. Raised in a marginally Christian family Catholic/Protestant. Any god that would allow "his children" to feel as bad as I did then though wasn't one I could follow. I started to look for answers to that situation. Then I read Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are By Alan Watts at 16. That was the first signpost for me on the Buddhist path. It was the only signpost in my life at that time. So I pursued it. Learned. Studied. Meditated. Retreated. Applied it. Still doing all of that. It's been a constant. One I am unbelievably grateful for.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for posting Nellalou. I was worried I lost you for a second!

I am not familiar with that Watts book but am curious, good title.

Cubist's picture

I was raised in mostly Christian environment (Utah) that never embraced me because I was non-Mormon. When I turned twenty I started looking at different religious and philosophical beliefs to find where I fit. After reading numerous articles on different faiths, dogmas, doctrines and beliefs I picked up "Awakening the Buddha Within", that single book set me on my current path.

My wife, who was raised in the Mormon faith has started reading the book lately and our children have been raised knowing about Buddha and who he was. This has caused issues with her family as well as mine.

Since finding my path and embracing it I have had a direction and a center to my life that I never had as a child. This is something my wife has noticed, since we began dating around the time I read "Awakening the Buddha Within".

My family now understands why I follow the path and also have seen the change in me since the beginning of my path.

kaitceridwen's picture

I can relate - I was raised SDA and just never felt connected. My parents were English teachers in Manado Indonesia. There wasn't much there and at the time we were there foreigners were a bit of an oddity. There was a small Buddhist temple in the city however and sometimes(unknown to my dad) my mother would take me there where she started to teach me there were other paths that could be followed. In a very dirty, often volitile place where people were quick to kill each other over the smallest religious differences, this one place was my little girl's
paradise. It was quiet and clean and the moost beautiful place in the world to me - I thought "god is here".
Later as an adult it was this memory that moved me to start reading and seeking out buddhism and its teachings. I wandered away several times but always found myself walking a path back.

Bijou628's picture

Thank you so much for sharing. I also identify with family not understanding my choice to practice Buddhism. I grew up Catholic.

For me, Buddhism began in college as part of a global exploration of religion. I had been raised in an environment where it was a sin to attend even a Christian church that wasn't Catholic. I had married the first man I slept with, feeling that I had no choice in the matter. Seven years later, he became addicted to cocaine and physically violent and my friends (with me under protest at the time) convinced me to leave. After a year and a half of grueling court proceedings (my ex kept failing to cooperate) the divorce was final.

I was so confused and all I wanted to do was consult a priest. Unfortunately, these events took place during holy week, so I was passed off seven different times. Taking it as a sign that I would never get holy counsel, (seven is the biblical number for infinity), I sought other methods of comfort. Mediation got me through those tough years and I found my practice heavily influenced by Taoist and Buddhist teachings. My family was okay with this arrangement, vocalizing often their fervent belief that my interest in Buddhism was "just a phase" and that I would "one day return to the church."

Four years after my "liberation" from my ex, I crossed paths with a friend from high school. We fell in love. The only problem: he's an atheist. He quickly took interest in my meditation practices and wanted to learn more about Buddhism. He, too, felt a great deal of joy with the practice saying, "THIS is what I have always believed. I just didn't know it had a name."

When we announced our engagement, my family wanted me to get an annulment (a Catholic practice of dissolving a past marriage in the eyes of the church). I refused. This was the first tear in what has become a great rift in our family.

Two months ago, my beloved and I exchanged Buddhist vows at our wedding. When we returned from our honeymoon, we received a letter from my father. "Our belief systems are such that we can no longer conduct a meaningful relationship," he wrote. My mother, brother, and sister-in-law have also decided to sever ties.

It's a pain that is so deep, so profound, that I have trouble comprehending why circumstances are what they are. It even threw me into such a stark depression that my husband took me to the hospital because I was suicidal. I've been practicing metta on myself every day, and the pain is starting to subside.

My mother once said, (ironically in a feign attempt to lure me back to the church) "faith is what gets you through the hard times." If that's true, than Buddhism is my true home.

Thank you for allowing me to post such a long response. I'm in a small town and it means so much to have this virtual sangha. Love and peace to all!

jbkranger's picture

That was obviously very difficult. I am so sorry

tomhancock's picture

Thanks so much for your story. It must have been incredibly difficult when your family told you they could no longer be in relationship with you because of beliefs. I'm glad you have found a practice that is beneficial.

Buddhism is spreading in the US; there's even a temple in the small city I live in in the Midwest. It's a small temple, however, so having this group is great.

With Metta

dthole's picture

This comment definitely hit me. Like you, I was also born Catholic. Also like you, my family tried to convince me in ways such as "a family that prays together, stays together". Also like you, it caused an immediate rift in the family - quite large infact. Luckily, we were both able to see the world wasn't going to crumble, and everything was ok. We grew closer, and are pretty close now.

I'm wondering if you and your family was able to close the rift some way.

inco9nito's picture

Thanks for sharing that. Your story resonated with me on a personal level. It also made me send a copy of a Buddhist text to me dear atheist friend. You have swapped your Catholic kindred, albeit only temporarily, for the sangha of the world. We are here, compassionate, and very appreciative of you.

Ktczen's picture

I understand the pain you are feeling. I too severed from the Catholic Church - or shall I say - was severed - for a lifestyle choice. The very religious leaders I went to for guidance dismissed me at a crucial time in my life. I had spent 12 years in Catholic schools and was truly indoctrinated. I was saddened to know I was so easily cast aide by what I had once believed in. The gap between Catholic teachings and Catholic practice is great. I found Buddhism in my most painful time. I have struggled with anger at the Church and through Buddhist practice, I have learned how to soften that anger so I do not harm myself or allow it to take away the beautiful things of my life. I too have found a true home. Thank you for sharing. You have helped me too! Ktc

singingorchid's picture

I very much relate to your words. I was actually raised Mormon. I fell away from the church early and returned when I got married. After years of struggling with the teachings I was reminded why I left in the first place. Too many questions, too few answers. Both my husband at the time, and I, stopped attending and started very vigorously searching for truth, in whatever form that took. What a journey it has been.

So, last year...I too was opened to the path through the help of Lama Surya Das Book. It is really great for the beginner. It was given to me, along with Jack Kornfield's Beginner's Guide to Meditation cd's, by a fellow path follower. I always knew she was kindred, her light shown bright and I needed to know how to let that light shine too. I am grateful every day to finally be home. I struggled for so long spiritually with so many unanswered questions wandering a very lonely road. Now I am joyous to know I have the teachings we all need and can have to live with joy and peace. I am so thrilled every day to learn more about the Dharma and in turn practice it.

I know of the struggles you have faced, as well, with family and loved ones. I delight in knowing that through me the path may be shown to them and others as well.

Blessings to you my friend,

Pamela

Monty McKeever's picture

Thank you for contributing bbbaker16. It must be a challenge when family is less than accepting.

I haven't read "Awakening the Buddha Within" but I will give it a look. I think we have a copy in the office somewhere (one of the perks of working for Tricycle, LOTS of great books in the office, maybe too many...).

best to you and your family!
Monty

Melbourne77's picture

for me it was the book 'zen mind, beginners mind' by shunryu suzuki. after reading it i started meditating every day and meditation helped me in a lot. then i took refuge vows and have not ever looked back.

joetheplumber's picture

for me it was back in 1950 when i joined the ymca and played judo.thats when i got interested in all the japanese arts like zen,tao, and meditation,ect,ect.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for sharing Melbourne77. "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" is a great book.