My crash course in Buddhism.
Yesterday I went to an ‘Introducing Buddhism’ course at the Leeds Buddhist Centre. It was a pretty intensive 6 hours, by the end of which I was totally whacked and ready to get back to my modern Western trappings and some good old fashioned noise. Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience which has given me a lot to chew over.
The people involved were some of the nicest, friendliest and most welcoming people I’ve ever come across. They were more than happy to listen to my relentless scepticism and answer some of my more awkward questions (not always totally to my satisfaction – but then I am particularly
The day started with a round of introductions and some funny and friendly banter. I’m going to be completely honest and say that, deep down, I expected a religious group to be a fairly humourless affair; this couldn’t be further from the truth. The group was full of warm and self-deprecating humour and I felt immediately at ease. As a self-proclaimed introvert (more on that another time), this is no easy feat for me: it can take me months, if not years, to feel comfortable around people.
There was absolutely no sense of judgment, or force. Nobody tried to convert me, or to persuade me that Buddhism is the right and only course.
After we were all chatted out, we went through to the main room. Immediately I felt uneasy again. There were mats laid out in front of what was basically a shrine: a Buddha figure surrounded by lights, flowers etc. The trappings of religion have always made me feel uncomfortable; anything that smacks of a deity, or worship, brings out the sceptic in me.
(I would just like to point out at this point that I am in no way against religious people. In fact I feel a kind of envy for their certainty of faith. I know plenty of Christians and they are all – without exception – remarkably kind and caring people. It is organised religion that makes me feel uncomfortable).
Anyway, I made myself comfortable on the mat (after some helpful instructions to avoid dead leg), and we began a guided meditation. I am not totally new to meditation – it’s something I’ve tried myself, as well as experiencing in various work training courses etc – therefore it didn’t feel alien to me. I think my other half was a little freaked out though. To the uninitiated, busy westerner, there is something seemingly wrong – unproductive – about just sitting and centering your thoughts. The meditation was 30 minutes long, and it involved breath counting (counting each breath up to ten, starting again if thoughts wander), as well as feeling the breath in the body. It was deeply relaxing and I felt very chilled by the end, despite the inevitable pins and needles. This experience matched my preconceptions about Buddhism. It felt right and natural; it confirmed to me why I was there.
We then had a break. I was ready, after 30 minutes of silence, to start chattering. The urge to connect with people is very strong: humans are, after all, social beings. So I felt a little repressed and agitated when we were told the break should be in silence. In fact this feeling of repression was quite surprising to me: usually I resist small talk, and enjoy disappearing into my thoughts. Perhaps I’m not as introverted as I thought.
Anyway, after the break we got the chance to do some chatting. The two ladies who ran the course (both wonderfully warm and lovely people) read us a translated verse and asked us to have a discussion in groups of three. I loved this part. The verse itself was beautiful, and the sentiment was along the lines of: ‘it is not your circumstances that make you happy, but how you react to them’. This is something I (almost) totally believe in, and it was great to have a chance to discuss this with knowledgeable and respectful people. My friends and family typically regard this sort of thing as ‘naval gazing’ so it was really nice to find like-minded people. Our discussion ranged far and wide (as well as disappearing off-topic into a debate about whether a jaffa cake is a cake or a biscuit… I maintain it’s a cake).
I also used this opportunity to express one of my perceived worries about Buddhism: the tug between accepting your circumstances as positively as possible (as suggested by the verse) and actively trying to change them. While I understand the idea that we can be happy whatever our circumstances, it is not so easy to accept for, say, someone who is starving, or who is being abused, or part of human traffic, or is terminally ill. It smacked a little of a theme running throughout many religions: a theme of power, of keeping people down, of urging them to accept their lot in life without complaint. I strongly disagree with this. I suppose this is a western precept – and also a worryingly capitalist one – but I strongly believe in the right of individuals to strive for better.
However, the experienced Buddhists in my group were quick to dispell my worries. One of the group members said: Buddhism is not about blindly accepting circumstances, but about distinguishing between what can and cannot be changed (a bit like the famous AA mantra). She said that Buddhism does encourage actively tackling circumstances, because it is all is about being honest, and putting up with intolerable circumstances is not being true to yourself. However, what Buddhism does say is: once you have done what you can to change your circumstances, let it go. Do not hold onto anger and hate.
This makes sense to me.
So when lunchtime came around I was feeling excited and keen to learn more.
However, after lunch, the religious aspects of Buddhism began to creep in. We took part in a ‘Puja’ (a chant); which basically involved members chanting a particular verse (I’m not sure which one), while individually going up to the shrine, lighting a candle and making a private offering to the Buddha. Parts of the verse involved offering ‘reverence’ to the Buddha.
This is where Buddhism and I began to part company.
To my untrained eyes, this appeared no different to the other religions: it wavered dangerously close to worshipping a deity (despite Buddhist claims that there is no deity and no worship). I resisted the urge to subordinate myself to a person (and the Buddha was a person) who died 2,500 years ago, no matter how enlightened and wonderful he was. I strongly believe in the humanist precept that all we have is ourselves, and we have the potential to create heaven or hell right here, right now. The world is amazing enough without looking for something more.
The Buddha took a wonderful step and gave an amazing gift to the world. But there are plenty of people in history who did this. The suffragettes gave a wonderful gift to women. Nelson Mandela gave a wonderful gift to black people in South Africa and across the world. It does not mean we should worship such people. Respect, yes; worship, no.
And I suppose this is when it came crashing down: Buddhism is wonderful and inviting and liberal and progressive and compassionate and everything I want the world to be. But, at the end of the day, it is still a religion. And there’s no getting away from the fact that religion and I do not fit together. I sometimes wish we did: I sometimes wish I had a certain faith in something beyond my experience. But I don’t.
I cannot make myself believe in something. I used to believe in Father Christmas: it brought me joy and happiness to believe – with complete certainty – that Rudolph’s hooves would patter on the rooftops. But I cannot make myself believe in something just because it would give me joy.
I expressed all these misgivings in the Q&A session at the end. The group listened with incredible respect to everything I had to say. They did not try to push me, and they certainly didn’t tell me I was wrong. What they did say was: Buddhism is what I want it to be. I can take away from it whatever I like; I can focus on what is meaningful to me. I can avoid pujas if I choose. It was a really interesting discussion and I learned a huge amount.
So, by the end, I was left with the following thoughts. I love so many aspects of Buddhism. It is a kind, gentle, peaceful and respectful religion. I agree with so many of the morals and ethics which Buddhists abide by. I respect the tradition of debate and scepticism, and the lack of force. I feel humbled by the fact that I know so little, and am not in a position to judge Buddhism based on one day. I am eager to learn more, and to practise meditation, and to attempt to abide by precepts such as gentleness, respect and gratitude.
However: I am resistant to the religious aspects of Buddhism, and without those, Buddhism is something entirely different. A form of humanism, perhaps; or mindfulness.
Maybe I am too closed-minded to really open my heart to it; perhaps as a devout secularist I am just as judgmental and self-righteous as the most intolerant religious people. Maybe this is a flaw of mine. I don’t know.
I am still digesting my experience yesterday, and what I have written here is in no way a comprehensive assessment. Just my initial thoughts.
I would definitely like to go again, and learn more about Buddhism and meditation. However, even if I don’t do this; even if Buddhism becomes just a passing interest during my twenties; even if I revert to my default position of secular humanist; I have still learned a lot. I have learned about myself and my own intolerances. I have learned more about the Buddhist faith. And I have also met some fantastically warm and kind people.
Please feel free to comment on anything I’ve written here – I’m always keen to learn more!