Sunday, January 22, 2012

Refuge in the wilderness

A few months ago I decided to take refuge, that is, to take formal vows as a Buddhist; since the particular form of the vows that I'll be swearing have been handed down by Zen lineages, I suppose that will make me a Zen Buddhist.  Since I was raised as an Anglican Christian and am a fundamentalist atheist (that is, non-theist) by conviction, this seemed to be exactly the right thing for me.  I won't pretend that I've reached this decision without some doubts, most of which have to do with subject of my last post.  But I thought I'd write a few words tonight about how I got to this point in my life.  I've described before how I came to meditation through a combination of chronic pain and lapsed Christianity.  I've described how for many years I practised meditation on my own.  So why make a specifically religious commitment?

Like most questions, this one can be answered in several ways.  I can tell you a narrative about how I found myself scheduling conversations with my teacher David Weinstein so that I could prepare for the ceremony known as jukai this coming Spring.  (People in Pacific Zen Institute and elsewhere seem to see this as a kind of confirmation, although I've heard students at San Francisco Zen Center speak of it as 'lay ordination'.)  I can tell you the intellectual reasons for wanting to commit myself to a certain set of practices.  And I can tell you why it seemed right on some visceral level for me, at this stage of my life, to begin defining myself without embrassment as a religious person.  Let's begin with the first, since stories often represent the form of explanation that is most immediately accessible to our understanding.

When I was still in my first or second year at the Anglican secondary school I went to in England, many of my friends went through a process leading to a confirmation ceremony.  Most of them did it almost automatically, and although I don't doubt that there were a few sincere souls, the prospect of confirmation gifts form relatives seemed to figure prominently in their decision-making.  Since I had already started to have doubts about Christianity, and since these doubts were only growing the more I started to find out about theology (and biology), I chose not to take part in the ceremony.  It wasn't a huge thing at the time, but since then there have been moments when I've felt estranged from a tradition that in many senses I feel is unmistakably my own.  Though I've been to a lot of church services of various denominations in my time, I've never once taken communion.

On my third and most recent PZI retreat John Tarrant used several of his evening talks to bring up the refuge ceremony and wonder aloud whether it was a tradition that we still felt had its place in a Westernized, progressive practice.  The reaction in the discussion periods was mixed; I felt myself that while I liked meditation and had no problems with the basic ethical precepts, I wasn't really a Buddhist, at least in the cultural sense.  What made me more open to the entire process was David's talk about the first time he took refuge in Nepal.  It wasn't so much the exotic narrative or the touching analogy with his marriage that drew me in, but the way in which he spent most of the talk admitting that he wasn't sure whether or not he was a Buddhist.  Precisely because he didn't insist on Buddhism as the only path, or advocate it out of some tribal loyalty, I felt more interested in adopting it myself.

The analogy with marriage provides the best way of explaining on a rational level why I feel that taking religious vows is something I want to do.  There is a sense in which there is no reason why two people in love should swear oaths that they will support and care for one another in the future.  You might think that they should care for one another as long as they feel like it, and then go their separate ways.  At the same time, the oaths they swear add some amount of reassurance that one of them won't simply abandon the other when things get too tough.  As the frequency of divorce demonstrates, the added security offered by vows sometimes don't amount to much, but they do amount to something, and that is often enough.  Taking vows to care for youself and others through a religious path that you find inspiring or reliable works in the same way, by giving you an additional motive to keep going when times get tough: to be true to yourself, to be faithful to an oath you swore to yourself alone.

This knowledge that you yourself have committed yourself in the past to a set of practices is reinforced when other people know that you have.  That they know that you've committed yourself to cultivating awareness and kindness towards others will support your practice in various subtle way, just as people knowing you're married will lead them to expect certain types of behaviour from you that might like to pursue for your own reasons.  A friend of mine has told me how comfortable he feels talking to women with his wedding ring on, since it makes it less likely that things he says will be misinterpreted.  I've started wearing beads; I'm not sure that many people make the association with Buddhism, but I guess the ones that do might be less likely to put pressure on me to do various sorts of things I might not like to do for my own reasons.  But there's a less rational reason for wearing them, too.

The less rational reason is that I feel that I want to declare myself as a religious person.  Not in the sense of making an annoucement with a loud-speaker that henceforth I'm going to be calmer or more ethical than other people, but simply in the sense of ceasing to be embarassed about what I am.  After practising various forms of Buddhist meditation for almost a decade now, and after being a member of almost half a dozen different Buddhist communities, I think it's high time that I admitted to others as well as myself that I'm a Buddhist.  I wouldn't know a traditional Buddhist festival if it hit me in the face (assuming they do that), and haven't read many Buddhist sacred texts; I do still celebrate Christmas, ever more lustily, and keep going back to the Western classics.  But I've looked around me and, as I move nearer to my thirtieth birthday, I know where I want to place my bet for a happy life.  It's a confirmation and a gift from someone close to me, all at once. 

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