I tried several different spiritual practices on my way to the WAY, as Bruce calls it, and by far the longest and deepest exploration went into Buddhism. For four or five years prior to my baptism, I read and studied books about Buddhism, practiced meditation, and went to several silent retreats in Massachusetts and California. I still have most of my books by various Buddhist teachers, and I reread them. I also have meditation CDs, and I still listen to them. I’ve been to several Contemplative Prayer classes and retreats led by students of Father Thomas Keating, the Catholic priest who recognized that the meditation practices developed and honed in various forms by Eastern religions were extraordinarily similar to the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, went to Thailand to meet with several Buddhist monks to discuss and explore similarities between contemplative prayer and Buddhist meditation techniques. As someone once pithily said, there ain’t nothing new under the sun.
I was a terrible Buddhist, but I liked the practices. For one thing, the teachers didn’t require me to recite creeds or statements of beliefs, or go through rituals like baptism or confirmation in order to participate. You showed up with your sitting bench or your cushion, you sat, you watched your breath. Anyone with the ability to sit still for forty-five minutes could do it, and if forty-five minutes of stillness exceeded your abilities, you could sit for five and work your way up. Unlike Christianity, which seemed to require an all-or-nothing belief in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior as the price of admission, the bar in Buddhism was low. In the school I followed, the point was not to quiet the mind, or empty the mind, or still the mind, or turn away from all attachments to the world, but to return again and again to the breath. That’s all. It sounds easy. It’s not. If you felt so inclined you could follow the Noble Eight-Fold Path, a practical guideline intended to help the student lessen attachments and delusions; there were ethical precepts geared towards doing no harm in thought, word, and deed. Basically, it was up to you. The teachings were there, and you could follow them or not. What really attracted me, however, was Buddhism’s basic foundation to question everything. Each student should try the Way (also what Buddhists call their path) for themselves. If they don’t work to heal you or improve your life or connect you, then try something else…with blessings. No threats of hell or eternal damnation. You won’t find Buddhists on the subways, screaming verses from the Dhammapada at beleaguered commuters.
Eventually, however, I found myself in a Methodist church on the Upper East Side, getting baptized, sitting in Bible studies, working in the soup kitchen. I’m an introvert to the bone, but what I missed, what I wanted that Buddhism didn’t provide for me was community, and although I couldn’t have told you this ten years ago because I’m as arrogant as they come, I also needed worship. I’ll freely admit that maybe I just didn’t look long enough or hard enough for a Buddhist community, but Park Avenue United Methodist Church was right there, two blocks from my apartment. The doors were open during business hours and on Sundays. I passed those open doors at least once a day on my way to the subway, or the bakery on 2nd Avenue, or Starbucks. Pastor Bill or Pastor Sara stood on the steps every Sunday and Wednesday, wearing their robes until the worst of summer settled over the city, under an enormous umbrella when it rained, giving biscuits to passing dogs, smiling and greeting everyone. (One year we held a blessing of the animals in the sanctuary that included dogs, cats, birds, lizards, rodents, and the biggest snake I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo, which was eying the rodents like God had answered all his snake-y prayers. Pastor Bill and Pastor Sara liked animals.) In the end, it was Reverend Dr. William Shillady who got me into church. I met with him after I’d been to a couple of services, and spilled out all my doubts and fears and insecurities. He listened, and gave me a few mustard seeds when we parted, and prayed for me. A few months later he baptized me. A couple of years later, he baptized my son.
This is the most recent book on Christianity I’ve read, so you can see Buddhism still speaks to me (after all, isn’t God still speaking?). In terms of a practical guide to living that brings you into greater harmony with the universe, no one does it better than the Buddhists, perhaps because they haven’t spent the last 1500 years bickering over doctrine and dogma, and killing people when the bickering got out of control. But in the end, the silence I find in meditation leads me to the God of the Bible. Maybe it’s cultural conditioning I just couldn’t escape, but I don’t think so. I think God wants me walking the WAY with Jesus in a community of believers known as church, rubbing off my sharp edges, questioning all my assumptions, serving God’s people. It’s where I belong.