In the Belly of the Buddha

There was a time when I thought I was Buddhist.

I suppose that fits me neatly into the New-Agey spiritual-seeker college student category (or should I say cliché?). But yes.

I discovered Buddhism my freshman year of college, when I decided last-minute to take “Buddhism in America” instead of a computer programming class (yes, I was a computer science minor once upon a time). In the class, we read Shunryu Suzuki, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Thich Nhat Hanh. We had to visit local Buddhist centers. And I was drawn to it, to this sense of calm and peace and serenity that I had never found in Bible Belt Christianity.

When I came back to South Carolina for the summer at the ed of that semester, I was determined to find a Buddhist community. And lo and behold–there was one in my town with a bona fide Tibetan monk. I have no idea why a Tibetan monk would come to the United States for political asylum (around the same time that the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet) and choose to teach in Charleston, SC of all places, but I was happy that he had.

The Tibetan Center was a small house on a side street, unassuming but for the Dharma Wheel symbol perched in the front yard. Inside, the first floor was the a large meditation room, hung with gold-trimmed tapestries and Buddha statues and always thick with the rich smell of incense. The floor was laid out in crisp rows of meditation cushions, and the platform at the front where our teacher sat always had a fresh lotus blossom floating in a bowl of water.

The monk was everything you might expect–wizened, sweet, and with a mischievous sense of humor that had him making comparisons between the mind and a Super-Walmart. He led us in meditation and talked about how each day is a snowflake, something delicate and beautiful and which will melt away.

I soaked up his words like arid desert ground. I brought friends with me to the center and begged my parents for a meditation cushion for my birthday. I read books upon books about Buddhism. I even posted the five beginner Buddhist vows (To refrain from harming living creatures (killing). To refrain from taking that which is not given (stealing). To refrain from sexual misconduct. To refrain from false speech. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.) in my room, committed to following them.

Looking back on that summer now, I see that I was swept up in more than a little romanticization–for the incense, for the wise old monk with the Tibetan accent, for the lovely tapestries hanging on the walls. I was so sick of Christianity and of the strict theologies of Catholics and Southern Baptists that I had grown up with, and I wanted a change.

Our monk always emphasized that meditation was not simply Buddhist, but something that could be used in any tradition–something essential for humanity as a whole. It took me a while to realize that fully for myself.

I began to crave church–the hymns, the community, the stained-glass windows. And I began to see that I didn’t have to become Buddhist to employ some of the same spiritual practices.

I was lucky, because it was around this time that I went to a Unitarian Universalist church for the first time. The minister of this church, which I now call home, is deeply inspired by Buddhist practice, and incorporates it into her own faith life and that of the congregation. But there is also a recognition–and this is important–of the danger of cultural appropriation. I think that the first time I encountered Buddhism, I was slightly guilty of this, taken by the exotic nature of my teacher and the center.

But now, I engage with Buddhism out of my own tradition. I read a piece on cultural appropriation the other day, and it emphasized that the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is power dynamics. Fair exchange cannot happen between a more powerful being and an oppressed one. It must occur between equals.

And so when I engage in Buddhist practice–or learn about and share in the practices of any religious tradition–I try to always be conscious of these ideas of equality and exchange.

I feel blessed that the Buddhists I met shared their tradition and the gift of their spiritual practice with me. Even though we are not all of the same tradition, we can learn from each other in peace and love.


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