Is Buddhism the religion for those who don’t like religion?

I read a recent article by Melvin McLeod, editor-in-chief of Shambhala Sunon the growing numbers of Americans who do not identify themselves as a member of any religion.  He writes that the “spiritually but not religious” group of Americans are ” the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S.  Generally, they’re educated, liberal, and open-minded, with a deep sense of connection to the Earth and a belief that there’s more to life than what appears on the surface.”  Speaking to these Americans, he poses the question, “Is Buddhism the religion for those who don’t like religion?”

For me, the answer was yes.

My conversion to Zen Buddhism is not the exotic story of a white, suburban young man venturing across the globe and discovering a religious practice different from the Christian background he was brought up in.  Rather, it is a mundane, simple story, despite the more than four decade gap between my being baptized as a baby in the Presbyterian church to taking the Precepts and being given the Buddhist name of DoHaeng.

Photo taken at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, Detroit, MI - May, 2008
Photo taken at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, Detroit, MI – May, 2008

Throughout my youth I walked the walk of a Christian.  My parents took me to the Presbyterian church in Plymouth -where I grew up- almost every Sunday.  I was an alter boy in my teens.  When my sister and I were younger, we were enrolled in a neighborhood Lutheran church’s week-long summer vacation bible school where the biggest difference I noticed between the Presbyterian and Lutheran service was that one used the term “trespassers” and the other used “debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer.

But it occurred to me as I began high school that the God story was much like the Santa Claus story we were sold on as children.  An all-seeing benevolent being was taking note of our deeds and misdeeds, which would determine whether we would receive a reward or not at a certain time.  If there was no Santa Claus, then where was the proof that God existed?

That’s when I became an atheist.

In my early 20’s I began studying writing.  I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones.  It is a writing book that does not focus on the usual categories of grammar, plot, characterization, etc., but on “using writing as your practice, as a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane.”  Goldberg practiced Zen and referenced both writing and Zen practice throughout the book.  This intrigued me and led me to my next softbound teacher, Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken.  What I found was that Zen provided something more useful than a mythical being judging us from the beyond as a guide to live one’s life.  Zen helped peel away the layers of my mind in order to be more skillful in life.

But I lived in suburban Detroit where no Zen temples existed.  I relied on books.  For a period of seven years I attended a Unity church which exposed me to an interesting interpretation of Christianity.  Human issues between the church’s board and their spiritual leader revealed to me that the “practical Christianity” it professed wasn’t very practical in practice.

In 2002, I found Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple on the same day they opened their doors.  They had originally been holding services at a Unitarian church in Detroit.  I had found my place.  The practice and guidance of the founding teacher, P’arang, and current teacher, Koho, has advanced my practice more than two decades of book-learned Zen.

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As I read McLeod’s article, he listed ten reasons why Buddhism enriches the path of the “spiritual but not religious.”  These reasons, I realized, are what drew me to the Buddhist path and why Zen works for me.  The reasons Mcleod gives are:

1.  There is no Buddhist god.
2.  It’s about your own basic goodness.
3.  The problem is suffering.  The answer is waking up.
4.  The way to wake up is to work with your mind.
5.  No one is there to “save” you, but you can do it.
6.  There is a spiritual, non-material reality.
7.  You don’t have to take anything on faith.
8.  Buddhism offers a wealth of skillful means for different people’s needs.
9.  It’s open, progressive, and non-institutional.
10.  It works.

For the details of these reasons, McLeod’s article can be found HERE.

Many family and friends struggle with this conversion.  It is okay.  It’s about what works.  For me, Zen provides more insight and guidance for daily living than anything else I’ve ever been exposed to.

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A couple of book signings coming up

I’ll be at a couple of events signing copies of The Y in Life.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Grey Wolfe Publishing Autumn Book Launch
Troy Community Center
3179 Livernois Road
Room #305
Troy, MI  48083
7:00PM – 10:00PM

The event will be featuring “The Sun Never Sets” by Cate Caldwell and Matt Pearson with a reading and Q&A session.

OTHER FEATURED BOOKS:
Poetry Plain & Simple by Celia P. Ransom
Free Will by Diana Kathryn Plopa
The Troublesome Trio by Linda D. Vagnetti
The Grey Wolfe Storybook by The Pack Writers
Spring/Summer Legend: 2014 by The Pack

I will not be reading, however I will be signing with other Grey Wolfe Publishing authors at the conclusion of the event.

This is a casual, family-friendly, FREE event, however, your RSVP is expected by October 20, 2014.   Grey Wolfe Publishing wants to make sure to have enough food, drink and books for everyone to enjoy.

To RSVP go HERE

Grey Wolfe Publishing accepts all major credit/debit cards, and cash.

Sunday, November 9, 2014
16th Annual Writers on the River
Ellis Library and Reference Center
3700 South Custer
Monroe, MI  48161
12:00 PM – 3:00 PM

Thirty-six authors, including myself, will be at the library to meet and sign copies of their books.  The event is free and open to the public.  Copies of The Y in Life will be available.  Cash only, please.

For more information go HERE

I look forward to seeing you at these events.

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Colliding and Reflecting

The Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, I was involved in the first car accident since the State of Michigan granted me a driver’s license decades ago.  Fortunately, no one was injured, other than our vehicles.

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My car was towed to the insurance-covered body shop for assessment.  At first, I thought it was totaled.  I could not open the driver’s side door, and my wife and I exited the vehicle through the front passenger door which opened only about a third of the way.  However, the insurance company saw it otherwise, and thus began the extensive work – a process which took five weeks to complete.

Five weeks without a car. We became a one-car family, which left me feeling like a grounded teenager.  I would take my wife to work early in the AM in order to use the car if I had to appear in court.  I wasn’t about to risk adventures outside those required, which meant missing the Kerrytown Book Festival, the Wayne State University Literary Walk, and a gathering of writers reading from their works at the home of my instructor/editor.

To make matters worse, my mother-in-law passed on September 13th.  We purchased this property with a second, one-bedroom home on it, in order to provide a more comfortable living arrangement for her versus a nursing home.  It was intended for a much longer duration than the first 152 days of ownership.

Needless to say, the combination of the two events provided me with a great deal of time stationary at home, to write, read, and reflect.

I was more productive in writing.  In August, I had begun to apply a plan I adopted from Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers.  Within, Sher identifies the Five Pillars of Writing (Brainstorming, Journaling, The Draft, Enriching and Refining, and Rest Period) which I have turned into a regular writing plan covering two hours a day, segmented into four periods of composition – two of fifteen minutes in length; a thirty minute segment; and an hour.  The two hour per day routine, even when disrupted, provides for a certainty that something can be done every day, even if it is just one of the segments.  This September I wrote almost fifty percent more words than last September.  Progress is being made over a variety of projects, including producing eighty-five pages of the novel I am currently at work on.

But there was a deeper understanding that I came to during this period about writing.  Though I enjoy attending events in the presence of other writers, a writer must write.  It made me aware of the  distractions that can become a way of life, keeping me away from writing.

I look at this blog, for example.  There are months where I’ve posted regularly, and months where there may be only one or two entries.  During the month of June I had tried to maintain some regularity with the blog, but found myself stretching and ticking time away trying to come up with something worth writing about.  This forum is purported to be a tool to build one’s platform.  Yet, it has become a distraction.  I do not believe that my blog has convinced any one of its few readers to purchase my novel.  If I have something to write about – like a donut on the window sill – then I’ll do so.  And the soccer fans seem to enjoy my Detroit City FC posts.  But it makes little sense to me to try to snare a reader by writing a blog post when really, who has the time to peruse the internet and explore unfamiliar bloggers?  My time would be better served researching or revising a short story that would find itself published within a literary journal where readers, editors, and agents are interested.

Another distraction is Facebook.  It’s taken some time and I’m still trying to assess its purpose.  Is it a place to hold conversations?  Debate politics and religion?  Show off our kids, dogs, or cats?  Take surveys to find out which character from which fictional world I am?

I find the most challenging aspect of Facebook is seeing the posts of people who have fallen for the divisive canards such as Obama’s country of origin, climate change deniers, and the like.  A wise person once told me not to argue with crazy.  Too often I have.  I’ve done so partially to get clarity on why I hold the opinion I do.  In the end, however, crazy isn’t rational enough to change its opinion based on any argument I may make.  And maybe I’ve been crazy to think it might.

What’s worse is the anger that fuels those who believe in the divisive canards.  Anger arises out of a fear, and brewed hot enough, leads to hate.  I try to remember the Buddha’s words:

The worse of the two is one
who, when abused, retaliates.
One who does not retaliate
wins a battle hard to win.

Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.188

It is a battle I’ve lost often by retaliating with hatred.  Most often it comes in the sports arena.  Teams that I dislike, you know.  I try to rationalize it by saying it’s only sports, but sometimes that dark emotion begins to consume me in ways that don’t make me the nicest person in the room.  It causes me to engage in speech that would not be of benefit to those listening to my rant.  But let’s not confuse hatred with taunting.  “Fuck Ohio” is a taunt.  Or am I rationalizing again?

The anger, though, of those spewing and perhaps even believing the divisive canards is far from taunting.  It comes from a viciousness that makes me wonder about some of my fellow humans.

My best option is to observe them like the negative thoughts that arise in my mind from time to time, and try to be gentle with them.  Facebook as a meditation on the collective thoughts of my friends and what thoughts and feelings they bring up in me.

The other thing this period brought to my attention was transportation.  We spent a week in New York City and did not drive the car once.  Here, in Metro Detroit, that is a dangerous proposition.  I considered the walk from my house to Meijers, were I to need to pick up groceries.  The distance of the walk would have been no farther than what we traversed on Manhattan pavement from subway station to book store destination.  However, the walk here is far more dangerous.  The Meijers is on the corner of 23 Mile Road and Gratiot.  Both roads at that point are five lanes – two in each direction and a left hand turn lane.  They are wide streets.  And heavy with traffic.  The two-lane road that would lead me to Gratiot has sections that provide sidewalk, and sections that don’t.  Not the most pedestrian friendly excursion.  This for groceries, mind you.  Without a car, from where I am, there is no short walk or easy mass transit to a book store!

I’ve never considered myself a car guy, even being from the Motor City.  But when the body shop called and said my car was ready for pick up, there was much rejoicing.  Seeing her again, sparkling and unblemished, perfumed with the new car smell within, I wanted to hug her.  However, I remained calm and appropriate with the service rep standing nearby.

It’s funny, you know.   I recently wrote about how September, not January, signified the New Year in my life.  (Ironically posted a few hours before the accident).  With the accident and my mother-in-law’s passing, it truly is a new year, a new chapter, and new awareness.

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