Confessions of a Pseudo-Buddhist
A few years ago I was shopping in the local grocery store. As I was walking down the aisle, I passed another guy, whom I noticed was looking at me. He called me by name, and I recognized him–he’d been my best friend’s roommate in college some thirty years before. It turned out that we both lived in the same small town now. We talked for awhile, catching up. At one point, I mentioned in passing that I was a member of the local Catholic parish. He looked at me somewhat askance, and then said, “I always thought you were Buddhist!” I don’t remember how I responded to that at the time. Thinking about it later, though, I decided, upon looking back, that I probably did come off as a Buddhist in those halcyon days of yore. Since then, I sometimes describe myself at that point as a “quasi-Buddhist” or a “functional Buddhist”. Maybe “Buddhist fellow-traveler” would be better. Best of all, perhaps, as with the title of this post, “pseudo-Buddhist”.
I’ve discussed here how reading the Dhammapada caused me to become interested in Buddhism. I read voraciously about Buddhism in the sources available to me at that time–principally books on Zen, though there were some others, as well. In particular, I read and re-read D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, a book I need to write about in detail in the future. In conversations I’d often quote the Buddha or refer to Buddhist concepts. I can easily see why my friend thought I was, indeed, Buddhist. On the other hand, there was no real depth to it. Except for brief attempts on maybe one or two occasions, I never really tried meditation (much later, after I became Catholic, I’ve done Buddhist and other forms of meditation relatively extensively). I certainly never took refuge, the official way of converting to Buddhism. I was vaguely aware of a Buddhist study group in the city were I was living at that time; but for reasons of which I’m unsure even now, I never made contact (I did do mediation at their meditation center many years later, once more, after I came into the Church). You might say that such Buddhism as I exhibited was all saffron and no substance.
I’ve previously discussed my youthful tendency towards a unitarian view of Christ. I was only vaguely aware of the Unitarian-Universalist Church, principally through the books of Forrest Church, which I had read with interest. I liked his writing, but it didn’t really cause any real interest in Unitarianism as a religious option. I was deeply attracted to the person of Christ, having by this time read the Bible in full twice. Still, I couldn’t shake my unitarianism; and every Christian denomination that seemed even vaguely interesting to me was firmly Trinitarian. There was no way I could find to square the circle of being in a Trinitarian church without actually being a Trinitarian. I think this is part of what drove my attraction to Buddhism, beyond my strongly positive reaction to Buddhist literature. Much about Buddhist thought made intuitive sense to me. Moreover, I could sort of frame Christ as a bodhisattva or enlightened being of some sort within a Buddhist framework. That way I could explore Buddhism without quite leaving behind my Christian heritage. That’s what it looks like to me in retrospect, anyway. At the time, I doubt I would have had a clear notion of exactly what I was doing.
In any case, I did read as widely as I could. At first, I tended to favor the
Śrāvakayāna school of Buddhism (for a discussion of the various names of that school, see here). This was in large part because much of the literature I read was relatively old, and tended to reflect the biases of 19th and early 20th Century Western Buddhist scholarship. Another part was the romantic notion of the tough, individualistic monk on his quest for nirvana, as I discussed in my post on the Dhammapada. The emphasis there is on “romantic”, or “romanticized”, as I’m fairly sure that in actuality I’d have never managed the monastic lifestyle, in Buddhism or any other faith, for that matter.
As I noted above, I ran across D. T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and switched the gears from Śrāvakayāna to Mahāyāna in terms of my preferences (Zen being a branch of Mahayana–I now drop the diacritics–of course). Most of the material I read from that point was Zen-oriented: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, several of Robert Aitken’s books in the late 80’s, and some others, the titles of which I forget. Over time, I fell away from reading Buddhist books, and shifted towards reading and study of Catholicism. At the Easter Vigil of 1990, I entered the Catholic Church.
After a few years, I became interested in Centering Prayer, and I began practicing it on and off in the mid-90’s. Partly because of this, and partly because of the increase in the number of books and the amount of other media on Buddhism by that time, I began to read Buddhist works again. I recall getting books by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Thich Nhat Hanh, and several others. Unlike the books I’d read years before, many of these gave explicit instruction in meditation. I experimented around with different forms of meditation, in addition to Centering Prayer. Later, after moving away from my hometown, I attended a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center for some time, participating in mediation activities there.
Thus, I have done more Buddhist-oriented activities since becoming Catholic than I ever did when I was a pseudo-Buddhist. Perhaps I needed to have some spiritual anchor, particularly one located in my native Western heritage, to feel comfortable enough to branch out into more exotic practices. Who can say? In any case, I’ve meditated sporadically since then, sometimes practicing very regularly, and sometimes lapsing for years. As of this writing, I’ve been back to daily practice of shamatha for the last month. For various reasons that I may discuss at some future time, I have decided I prefer to take my Buddhism straight up, so to speak, rather than in the form of Centering Prayer. I nevertheless stick with forms of meditation that are compatible with Catholicism (that is material for yet another possible future post), trying to strike a middle path–which is a venerable Buddhist term itself!
So I have gone from being a generic non-practicing cultural Protestant to a restless searcher to a very regularly practicing Catholic; and all along the way I have been, and perhaps in some sense still am, a pseudo-Buddhist.
Part of the series “Religious Miscellany“