I’ve had an eclectic spiritual upbringing. My father was Catholic and my mother was Southern Baptist. My family moved every 3-4½ years and I thought this nomadic pattern would continue after I graduated from UT but Knoxville grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. So our church pattern, if I recall correctly, after moving to a new city we would not go to church for about a year, then my folks would start shopping churches which felt like a year long process of visiting various churches (although we never tried a synagogue, Greek Orthodox, or Mormon church), then we would spend about a year in a particular church, usually Presbyterian or Methodist, before moving onto another city and repeating the pattern. In college, I had a roommate who was a practicing Wiccan and religious studies major and one of my best friends was Mormon. We had some very interesting conversations. One particularly memorable one involved a chalkboard, a figurine from Disney World that we named Jaboody – Decider of Fates, and Purgatory. In short, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different views regarding religion and spirituality.
Awhile back I thought I’d learn a little about Buddhism and read a book (which has gone awol so I cannot reference it right now) that described Buddism from a historic perspective, discussed the different branches, and defined terms. Shortly after reading that book, I became involved with Seesmic as one of its first 1200 users for alpha testing. Also in that group of early adopters was someone named Jason Jarrett. After some fun conversations, I noticed his profile referenced a website called A Buddhist Podcast which sounded interesting and I clicked over. Jason and Karen Jarrett produce a wonderful podcast. They are well spoken, fun to listen to, have great content and a well formatted show. However, I’m not sure if at that time in my life the show would have grabbed me and held onto me had it not been for clicking into a reading of The Buddha, Geoff and Me. They read the entire book Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 which left me loving audio books, filling my iPod with more podcasts than music, and further piqued my curiosity about Buddhism.
Question 1: So what is Buddhism about? I like Jason Jarrett’s words:
Buddhism is about revitalizing humanity, and transforming the world we live in from one dominated by greed, anger, and stupidity into one of peace and happiness. [Source, Jason Jarrett of A Buddhist Podcast, A Buddhist Podcast – Bodhisattvas of the Earth, 2:46-2:58]
The Soka Gakkai International-USA explains that the daily practice of Nichiren Buddhism involves faith, practice and study. So far, I’ve learned how to chant..sort of. I have a long way to go to get to the study part. My understanding of Buddhism has come almost solely from A Buddhist Podcast. For me, Jason Jarrett has made an incredibly positive impression of Buddhism. He flabbergasted me and even offered to make an international call to me one day. I was blown away because it felt like Harrison Ford offering to call me out of the blue and discuss how to be an actor in Hollywood. I just didn’t see how I could be worthy of his time and felt guilty at the possibility of causing him the expense of a call for something that I potentially was just trying on for size. I’ve since learned, that’s kind of how it works. I’m not describing a conversion to a religion but more of sharing of knowledge in a way similar to how Stephen R Covey would encourage you to teach time management to others. On the other hand, I’ve been terribly disappointed in the SGI. They are the Buddhist Association for Peace, Culture, and Education and are divided into cultural centers. The nearest cultural center to Knoxville is Atlanta. I can’t remember if I got through to someone and was referred to Memphis or if I got no answer and ended up in Memphis but my search in Atlanta for more information about Buddhism was a dead end. Memphis was no better. I eventually found a website for the SGI in Knoxville Emails to SGI Knoxville went unanswered and a direct call phone didn’t work either. Knoxville has a Buddhist temple – the Phap Bao Temple. This is apparently a Vietnamese practice. I do not know how it would differ from Nichiren but visited them anyway. I tried several times but never managed to be there at the same time people were available. Phap Bao has no website that I can find. Buddhism in Knoxville starts to feel very elusive.
Update: The kind people at SGI Knoxville have contacted me. There is an active chapter in Knoxville.
Question 2: Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? If I recall correctly, the book which I cannot seem to lay hands on right now referred to Buddhism as a philosophy. However, Jason Jarrett and Karen Jarrett and their guests have referred to Buddhism as a religion. So that leads me to part a of question 2: Does it matter? and part b of question 2: Can a Baptist, Native American, Jew, Muslim, Catholic, Atheist, Wiccan, or anyone of any other religion also be a Buddhist? (and again, does it mater?)
Question 3: When can I chant? I started trying to learn to meditate at an early age. In my early teens I read book after book on hypnosis and self-hypnosis hoping for some means of reaching a deeper calm. I never could seem to figure out how to meditate through any process. That’s not entirely true. I’ve always been able to escape with juggling. I have often spoken of juggling as a transcendental and spiritual activity for me. Through juggling I can lose myself into a very meditative state but that’s often a sweaty process and I wanted some om’s and ah’s in my life! Nichiren Buddhism introduced me to chanting Daimoku and it came very naturally for me. As a matter of fact, this method of chanting is so straight forward that my 6 year old girl picked it up and often asks me to chant with her as she drifts off to sleep. My 3 year old boy has participated too. Chanting Daimoku works for me. It calms my mind, focuses my thoughts, center or grounds me, and I do feel happier when chanting. Daimoku is a Buddhist prayer made up of 6 syllables in these words "nam-myoho-renge-kyo." The wikipedia article gives a technical interpretation by I like Jason Jarrett’s plain English version better:
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the Buddhist prayer that means I dedicate my life to bringing out the very best in myself and in all people. [Source, Jason Jarrett of A Buddhist Podcast, A Buddhist Podcast – Bodhisattvas of the Earth, 24:17-26:12]
I keep that written in a notebook that I carry with me at all times. When I slip, I look at that note as a reminder. Amy, on her own accord, has done the same (although technically her notebook remains by her bedside). So, now that we know what chanting is, when can I do it? Can I chant while cooking bacon? Is Buddhism a PETA thing? The stereotypes in my mind say Buddha Vegan while The Buddha, Geoff and Me tear down those impressions. Can I chant while driving the car? My cluttered mind loves a drive. Yes, I should be paying attention to the road and not running through the mazes in my brain. Chanting while driving down the road could help me focus on the road more by driving off those random thoughts. Or, does chanting require a specific time, in front of an alter in a distraction free quiet space?
Question 4: If I use Buddhism to seek happiness, do I have to fire my therapist? I would say I have easily spent ¾ of my life soul searching. I would say that despite having a life full of joyful moments, I have been fundamentally unhappy, and downright angry, that same ¾ of my life. If you had a Buddhist teacher (see question 5), at what point does it become abusive to that person’s time to have them try to help you onto a path of happiness and shouldn’t they just throw up their arms and shout out, "Get on prozac. Get a psychologist. And call me in the morning!" Honestly, I struggle to keep myself in check and not over bemoan my existence to my friends. I often re-read Reality Me and think that I should have handed the keys to the blog to someone else for that week. Where’s the line between seeking spiritual enlightenment and grasping at straws in hopes someone else will magically solve your problems?
Question 5: Where’s Mr Miyagi or Caine? As a child I was a Bruce Lee fan and a David Carradine (Kung Fu) fan. My Of Grasshoppers posts are a bit of an homage to Kung Fu. I loved the martial arts movies. One of the consistent elements of these movies that I liked (besides the fighting and awesome stunts) was the master, the teacher, the wizened sage like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. I always hoped such a mystic would sneak into my life. In hindsight, I knew several Caines and Mr. Miyagis. Even today, they surround me but I won’t realize this until tomorrow. Does learning Buddhism require a teacher?
Question 6: What about me has to change to practice Buddhism? Must I give up possessions? What about the things I find pleasurable in life? Do my views on life and death have to change?
our view of death has a profound affect on how we view life. If we think we only have one life then we are often hedonistic or pessimistic. [Source, Twitter, @jasonjarrett]
Question 7: When can you declare yourself a Buddhist? I’ve never been clear on question regardless of what the last word is. When can you declare yourself a Catholic? When can you declare yourself a Wiccan? When can you declare yourself _____? Is there a test? Do you even have to say you are a Buddhist? Can’t you simply be practicing Buddhism? How do you become a member of the Soka Gakkai International? I don’t see a join us form on the website or a purchase membership option.
I’ll stop there. This has been far too many words for most people to read but then again this post is mostly directed to me. My next post on Buddhism has already begun being written in my mind. It will be titled I don’t have the strength or discipline to be a Buddhist.
Update: Question 8 has its own post.