A few years ago while reading a foundational text on Buddhism I had the first of two spiritual experiences with respect to the tradition: every new insight I read, it seemed like I was remembering rather than discovering. That is, it felt like I had been a Buddhist before.
I asked a psychic about this feeling, and she averred that I had been a Buddhist monk in many previous lives. Not only that: she said that many of these lives had occurred directly in a row. “You really wanted to master that lesson,” she joked.
Although this exchange confirmed my initial intuition, there were still years to go before I would be able to call myself a Buddhist, much less bow to the Buddha and to others—as I do now. In fact, it wouldn’t be until my second Buddhist spiritual experience, one which occurred at the retreat center from which I write this essay.
Looking back on my life and its origins, one reason for this delay is that I was raised by parents both of whom rejected their foundational religions (to greater and lesser degrees), and who passed their resulting religious skepticism onto me. As a child, I was told that God was whomever or whatever I believed, that I was free to choose my tradition or practice, and that institutional religion could be a site of abuse and conformity. As such, I became one of the many people in the U.S. who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”
At the same time, a further reason it was difficult for me to accept my role as a Buddhist is that it was difficult for me to make decisions generally. This is because in addition to their agreed skepticism toward organized religion, my parents disagreed on many things, and these disagreements led to their divorce. As such, I internalized the message that in holding a strong view about anything, I would necessarily call into question its opposite; doing this at length, I would dissolve my relationships and bring pain to myself and other beings. In response to this early dynamic, I cultivated the identity of someone who paradoxically didn’t have an identity, whose only consistent choice was that he didn’t choose. This seemed to me the only safe option.
More broadly, I also think that I feared being wrong in my choices: I think this is a deeper and more profound reason for fear of choice, one that extends to all beings regardless of their inheritance of divorce, religious skepticism, or any other conditional background. If we actually go the distance and choose something like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or any other religious tradition, what if we’ve made the wrong choice? What if, in the extreme, we die only to find that we threw in our lot with the “wrong” God, that our years on earth were wasted? All the while while living in this decision, I also knew that we would be pitted against others who had chosen differently; the Christian, I thought, is in implied contention with the Buddhist and the Muslim, a fact that we can see manifest in the numerous wars that have been fought over religion throughout history. I wanted no part of it.
However, living my life as a person who feared and resisted claiming an identity, and who avoided making decisions, brought me much pain, landing me in situations that were increasingly isolating and psychically upsetting. In my romantic relationships, I never made my lover feel very good or secure about our connection or her position in it, and broke as many hearts as I left people confused. (My own heart, by the way, was always one of the ones broken.) In work, I deprived myself of the satisfaction of doing a job to completion, instead working a year or less here, then there, then a new place altogether. In this vein, I cultivated the undesirable identity of a person who was undependable. In faith, I believed nothing at all, an orientation which I would later find meant I had sided with my own ego above all else. (As it turns out, this is not such a reliable master.)
Fantasizing about the possibility of making concrete, definitive choices while at the same time recognizing that, given who and where I was in life, I didn’t know how to, I wrote a highly autobiographical novella about a child of divorced parents who struggles immensely with choices, most notably the choice of where to go to college. (Among the two colleges he’s been accepted to and from which he will pick, either one will disappoint one of his parents—a reality I myself had really traversed.) In the novella, the ending sees a radical leap ahead in time to the perspective of a narrator who has seemingly resolved his younger self’s travails of choice: he is a professor at a university, is happily married, and is a man of faith. However, the gap of time between this moment, and his earlier struggle leaves the reader without answers as to how this kind of transition is made: how does one make definitive choices? How does one fall into a faith, especially when one is so afraid of the consequences of choice as I then was?
Of course, the reasons the novella was written in this way are twofold: one, because it seemed to work aesthetically for the structure and content of the novella, rendering the whole as a sort of zen koan; and two, because I myself didn’t know how to fill in my narrative gap; I didn’t know how to make the transition from where I was, to where I wanted to be; I only knew that I held a vague sort of vision about who I must become.
A few years after all this, my life as an acolyte of my own ego began to spiral itself out, dumping me into situations that were increasingly volatile, even dangerous. I’ve already portrayed what would happen to me in my relationships, work, and faith, and how with time these patterns diminished my confidence, but one thing I haven’t yet shared is how the universe began to show me actual instances of violence: more than one time, I was close or physically present to a lethal shooting; and I also had roommates who lashed out at, threatened me, and yelled or threw things. Taking both internal and external events as trying to tell me something, it was increasingly evident that my life was falling apart.
It was in this state that, seemingly randomly, a friend drove up alongside my car one afternoon while I was returning home from a rock climbing session and I told him to meet at my house. This was a friend I hadn’t seen in years, whom I didn’t know shared the city in which I was then living, and the prospect of the two of our driving on the same road, at the same time and witnessing each other in this way, seemed unlikely at best. When he stopped off at my house after following me home, he pulled out the business card of a therapist with whom he had recently been working and offered it to me: “This person changed my life,” he said, “You should go.”
Sure enough, she changed my life as well, and this proved to be the first of many such occurrences in which the universe offered me guidance that seemed explicit, appropriate, and outwardly unasked for. For instance, another time a few months later I was seated at a coffee shop, and a woman next to me consistently laughed to herself while listening to a book on tape via headphones. After a few moments of this she took out the headphones, turned to me, and said, “You have to read this book.” She said she would tell me the name of the book and indicated to me to take out a pen and write it down. That book was Letting Go, by the author David Hawkins.
With time, what I’ve made of this transition in my life is that eventually, when living from ego and without a spirituality, our lives show us that the ego is an insufficient master with which to steer us. From this place, we finally become open to alternatives; we become open to the idea that there are other teachings beyond our own knowledge which could structure our lives, and with such an openness those teachings begin to appear. Rather, what’s probably true is that the teachings had been present the whole time, even when we were directing our lives individualistically and from a place of ego; it’s just that we hadn’t the eyes to see them.
This more open, submissive orientation has brought me to meet a favorite author at a retreat; to go to graduate school in a different state from which I was then living, for no reason I could discern (this is where I met my fiancé); and recently, to attend a Buddhist retreat at a well-known zen center in California.
It was at this latter location that I had the second of my spiritual experiences with respect to Buddhism, one which wordlessly resolved my long-standing issues with spirituality, and with choosing a tradition. What happened is that I and others were engaged in a once-monthly full moon ceremony—one which consisted of numerous prostrations to the Buddha, as well as the chanting of verses to relieve us of karmic debt and inculcate us in vows to protect beings and spread peace—and I knew in a moment that thousands, then millions of beings had made and were making these same prostrations and chanting these same verses, and that they had always done so and would continue to do so, and that I was one of them. From this vantage, it became inconsequential whether I was Jackson, or any other person; or had divorced parents, or any other kind; or any other reservation or story I might have had. Instead, I was just one among many in a procession of the distribution of peace and ascension to wisdom that had always taken place and always would, a procession which ultimately transcended time. Lost in this moment, I was also found.
The traditions of bowing and chanting themselves have been the subject of much discussion at this retreat, since they strike others, like myself, as no different from the Christian, Islamic, Judaic, etc practices which discomfit Westerners who call themselves “spiritual.” That is, it is easy to rationalize why doing something as individualistic as meditation is only that: it’s an individual practice that I choose to undertake because it makes me feel good. With a specific set of chants to a specific god, on the other hand, and one to whom we bow, we enter the territory of institutional religion: we are no longer in the safe position of simply cherry-picking that which resonates with us; now we are Buddhists, in the same way that Christians are Christians and Muslims, Muslim.
Some here have attempted to rationalize this quandary away by claiming that when they bow, they do it only as a form of exercise: it is sort of like a pushup done in rhythmic time. Others, less willfully denying than the person who said this, recognize that they are spiritually humbling themselves before something, but claim that it’s to the ideal wisdom which the Buddha represents rather than the Buddha as a person; this is because, as hinted above, bowing to the Buddha as a person seems so much in line with doing something like crossing oneself before Christ—and that is a resonance with which these people experience discomfort. (To make an admission here before going on, I don’t begrudge or judge these people for their rationalizations; some of them have endured primary experiences of abuse and conformity with institutional religion, any resemblance to which still makes them emotional.)
However, for me there can be no such distinction between bowing to the Buddha as a person and bowing to the Buddha as an expression of ideal wisdom. For me, I bow to the Buddha in much the same way as I would bow to and recognize myself, or at least am learning to: as a partial, imperfect being who nevertheless longs for and thus represents the striving toward perfect wisdom. Like the Buddha, I have always had a sense that all things are connected, that the way the world is is not the way it need be, that suffering is not our necessary lot, and yet I have always had a frustration with my implication in this system and its violence, with the fact that in order to sustain my life, I must kill or harm other beings. When I bow to the Buddha, I bow to both his Buddha nature—his unparalleled closeness to perfection—while simultaneously bowing to him as an imperfect being, as one who, like me, serves as a window onto the infinite unknown.
Am I any different from a Christian, then, or a Muslim or a Jew? Not anymore, I don’t think. I think the impulse to differentiate myself from them, to claim myself as “spiritual,” while they are only “religious,” for me represents a kind of egotism, really a fear of making choices, of having an identity, for all the reasons I outlined above. I think that in judging other religious figures, or people in general, in these ways, I would only seek to preserve myself from the fundamental contradiction of being human: I have a sense of and long for my place in the infinite, yet simultaneously embody a specific being whose perspective is limited, and who must choose among partial traditions in order to find a spiritual sense of home. As such, whenever I bow to the Buddha I bow to all other beings who share this plight as well—to all who long for perfection, but cannot have it; to all aware that in taking one position, they simultaneously imply the “incorrectness” of another, and struggle with the fundamental, inescapable violence this represents. And I bow to you, too: there is no way that you do not identify with the things I write in this paragraph, simply because you are human.
At the same time, a funny thing about finally, fully choosing to be a Buddhist is that none of the above seems like my concern anymore. It doesn’t seem to me that if in finding I am a Buddhist, a Christian thinks that means I think his faith is “wrong,” that this interpretation is my responsibility; neither does it matter to me that in the history of “choosing” religions, much blood has been shed and many forceful conversions conducted. I am a Buddhist, a practitioner of peace who rests in the contradictions which this position confers; all else lies in the psyches of those who regard or receive me.
And another funny thing is revealed, in this moment of choosing: it’s that in the arrival at the choice to be a Buddhist, an instance of the kind of thing for which I so greatly longed for so many years, I actually didn’t experience any choice at all. Instead, I experienced my succumbing to a vast and perpetual flow, one in which I had always been bounded, if only I forgot it for a time. Maybe this is the nature of choice: in order to make a choice, we simply stop trying, give up, and let the choices make, dissolve, and remake ourselves. For me, this process has yielded the fact that in yet another life, I appear to be a Buddhist.
More than a Buddhist, I am also engaged to be married, and am enrolled in graduate school, well on the path to becoming a professor—much like the projected future at the end of that novella I wrote long years ago. Did I effect these changes and outcomes? Did I make these things happen? Not really, from my perspective: as a person who so fantasized, at one point, about making choices, I have instead become a person who surrenders to the choices which already appear to have been made, either prior to my lifetime or by forces larger than me within it. And in this orientation, there is peace: there is the ability to become what I was already meant to be, and to leave the rest to God.