Sunday, July 8, 2012

How I became a Buddhist Evangelist and then Gave up

Before I became a Buddhist, I had a good life: beautiful girlfriend, lots of friends, money to burn, interesting career... but even rockstars, who are supposed to have it all, often feel a profound sense of emptiness. I was no rockstar, but something was missing.

Years before, I backpacked around Asia. I visited monasteries in the high Himalayas. These places felt like they were trapped in time. Bells and drums punctuated mysterious chants. Massive horns blasted the spirit of awakened heart into the heavens and into my guts. The clash of cymbals a midst the thick smoke of burning juniper grabbed my attention and shook me by the collar. I could have been Marco Polo in a scene of unprecedented cross-cultural encounter (if it wasn't for those Euro hikers in neon jackets, sitting behind the red-robed monks).

The time I had spent in Asia aroused a curiosity in me that lasted into the time when I was well on my way to living a conventionally happy life. Something was missing, but I wasn't sure what. I had meditated before, but I wasn't so sure I was doing it right. I had a feeling I might get some answers if I got back into it.

I was on the look-out for a place to practice. I didn't want religion. I didn't want people to think I was weird. I didn't want to be told what was good for me. I just wanted a place to practice sitting, to build my discipline and ask a few questions.

I'm often bothered by people who act like they have all the answers. So I was conflicted when I found real Buddhist teachers who spoke words that resonated throughout my insides, the way a drum sounds when you hit a sweet spot. There was no bullshit. They never asked me to believe anything. In fact, they challenged me to be skeptical and test whether what the Buddha taught made sense in real life. I was conflicted because I was turning into one of those people who thinks he has answers.

The Buddhist worldview had been like finding the user's manual for my own life. It was like opening up the blueprints for suffering, offering hope for an end to suffering. Possibilities to live a deeper life seemed to open up. I didn't have to hide from future suffering. I found that I could communicate more deeply with people. I found that my work was actually meaningful. I discovered that aspiring towards happiness was actually a good and noble thing, the essence of being human.

My rookie reaction was wanting to tell my friends about this. I was living in spiritually conservative Washington, DC, where words like "spiritual" and "compassion" are treated like dangerous mind-control drugs for weak-minded sheep. Using these words seemed to have the power to instantly transform an educated, reasonable professional into a crystal collecting, UFO spotter, who believed in fairies and wore pajamas all day.

Many of my friends are more open than your average Washingtonian. A couple of them even came by the meditation center for an introductory meditation session. But most of them never asked me more than one question about meditation.

Early in my study of Buddhism, a woman told me I would probably lose friends if I kept studying the dharma. I had no idea what she was talking about, but it started to make sense later. I was conflicted by the fact that there was so much I wanted to tell people, yet nobody cared. I was shocked by the fact that gaining some sense of meaning and purpose in life had alienated me from the people I loved to spend time with. I had dissolved one kind of suffering, only to replace it with another.

The feelings and events I'm describing took place mostly in the first couple of years when I started practicing meditation. By the time I decided to take my vows as a full-on Buddhist, these conflicting emotions had largely subsided. I reached the point in my studies when I realized how much energy I had put into this. It required so much inspiration to stick with it. I looked back, amazed that I had managed to spend so many days sitting still for even 20-40 minutes a day, yet I was nothing more than an infant on this path.

That's when I must have realized that people come to meditation because of some deep personal inspiration. Often we don't even know what our inspiration is. It could be cultural identity. It could be a profound experience with mortality. It could be the desire to reduce the suffering caused by a mind that is wild and untamed, like my friend who started having panic attacks on airplanes, dealt with it by learning meditation, and then became a serious student. He's not a Buddhist, nor does he have an aspiration to be, but the Buddha's teaching have enriched his life.

I realized that in order for meditation and the practice of working with one's emotions to be meaningful and helpful for us, we have to come at it with our own inspiration. If we don't, it will just become the latest fad. More dangerously, it could turn into spiritual materialism, something that builds up our ego instead of dissolving the ego.

I've heard that Hollywood movie stars make the worst dharma students. Why would they care about the way out of suffering, when life is so easy? Trying to convince people to learn meditation is silly, unless they are looking for it. People aren't computers that we can just program with the best software. As a wise teacher once told me, the only way to really change people is to help them find a way for their own wisdom to shine through. 


  1. Ah, what a thoughtful post. I don't think Buddhism is a religion that lends itself to evangelism at all, is it? People do need to make their own way to meditation and the dharma, and as practitioners all we can do is be an example of the positive effects of this path. The people we love will see this. Some may respond positively - sadly, others will feel threatened and back away. This has been my experience anyway.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post.

    1. Thanks for the comment Viv. I agree that Buddhism and "evangelism" don't go well together. And I think I figure this out by wanting to convince others this was a good thing and learning that people are ready when they are ready. Buddhists have no incentive to convince others, however, it is common for us to want to help others. I guess I realized that I wasn't helping others by telling them something that didn't resonate for them at the time.

  2. Very interesting post. I get similar reactions when I tell people I meditate.
    "Oh, so you're a Buddhist?"
    "Well, no. I just meditate and try to be mindful of others."
    "Then, what are you?"
    "A Jew who meditates."
    "Jews don't meditate..." Etc.

    1. Thanks Ariel.

      "Jews don't meditate..." that's unfortunate that people have to think in the box so much. Actually, we are meditating all of the time, according to Sakyong Mipham. It's just that most of us spend our time meditating on how to get more recognition, more money, a better car, more power, or whatever the mind craves. Nothing really wrong with that, necessarily. We all do it to varying degrees. But we can be clear about the fact that it perpetuates the cycle of confusion.

  3. Or people just don't want to hear it at all.

  4. Meditation is just a aspect of Buddhism. You can't go without reciting sutras and repentance.