Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Spiritual exile(s)

A young friend is grappling with his family's incomprehension of a spiritual path he is beginning to enter. He wrote a beautiful, very sad blog post about the ways in which the experience of such intolerance can actually lead us to a compassionate opening of awareness to others' experience of intolerance. He spoke, very powerfully, of "coming out"--not, in this case, as tending toward alternate sexuality, but as tending toward an alternate spirituality--and of the likelihood that, when and if he did, he could count on experiencing damned near as total rejection as if he were gay.

So I wrote a comment upon that post, having some sensitivity to the challenge that such fundamental shifts of perspective and self-identification--the realization that we are all, ultimately, going to be exiled--can represent. With his express permission, here it is:

This is an extremely difficult kind of thing to cope with. Here are a few thoughts:

It may be helpful, in your own head even if not in talking to your parents, to emphasize that most sects of Buddhism do not describe the tradition as a "religion". Rather, it is a way of understanding the world, understanding cause-and-effect (karma), understanding they suffering happens and what can be done to lessen suffering.

Buddhism does not require belief in a Deity. Even in the more "religious" streams of the tradition (I am thinking of Tibetan Buddhism, for example), where saints and bodhisattvas are recognized and venerated, there is no Deity.

This in turn means that most Buddhist teachers would say that it is not necessary to abandon one's natal religion in order to begin a Buddhist practice. In fact, especially since the 1960s, there has been a large percentage of the American Buddhist commentary who combine Buddhist practices with Jewish or Christian worship as well. There are even Buddhist teachers who are also priests, ministers, and rabbis.

Buddhism is a system, a tool for trying to make sense of a world of suffering (Samsara), injustice, and death. One of its aspects that has most powerfully drawn me personally has been its logic* and its honesty: its stance that suffering happens, not because "only bad people suffer" or because of "original sin", but because human beings suffer from ignorance, avoid the truth, engage in repetitive destructive and selfish behaviors.

One of the most liberating aspects of the tradition, for me, is that it provides a set of tools for unlearning ignorance. It believes that enhanced insight is possible and that it is such insight which alleviates suffering and provides hope for the future.

This in turn means that you need not think of your changing convictions and beliefs as "leaving the Christian faith"; Buddhism does not require that you do so. The hard thing is that, based on your descriptions here and elsewhere, you would wish to leave your father's religious tradition regardless of whether Buddhism was in the picture or not. You have not only found a tradition that makes better sense to you. You are also facing the very difficult--but very human--realization that you have to leave a tradition whose convictions, beliefs, and repercussions who don't support.

That is hard.
May all beings find a home.


sarge said...

Great post; thanks for sharing this.

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Seeker said...

Thank you for posting this. I am interested in the possibility of incorporating Buddhist practices into my own spiritual life, and what you have to say here is so helpful/encouraging.

My father went to seminary and we went to a pretty fanatical church growing up, and I can completely relate to being a spiritual exile in many ways.

I would love to know what books you might suggest for someone just beginning to learn about Buddhism.

masbrow said...

great post, Dr. C!

Dharmonia said...

Suggestions for Seeker: Here are a bunch of suggestions, all of which come from a slightly different point of view and all of which are good "beginning" points:

1) Start Where You Are, by Pema Chodron

2) Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki

3) Almost any book by Thich Nhat Hahn

4) Buddhism for Beginners, by Thubten Chodron (for a particular Tibetan point of view; and by the way she and Pema are not related)

5) believe it or not, the "Buddhism for Dummies" book isn't half bad as a basic intro, if you can get past those stupid "dummies" titles...

Dharmonia said...

Oh, and I forgot to say also that a lot of the Dalai Lama's books, like "The Art of Happiness" and many others, are definitely worth taking a look at