Conversions

I used to be Christian, and now consider myself Buddhist. Both terms are umbrellas for a dizzying array of people, traditions, practices, texts, and beliefs. I began my Christian life in a Congregational church, where I went to Sunday school, sang in choirs, and sat through services as a child and later as an adult. I rebelled as an adolescent and did these things under protest for awhile, then stopped doing them in college, and then resumed several years after graduating.

My first conversion occurred in my 30s, to Episcopalianism. My exposure to that denomination began with my husband’s job as a church musician, but the roots of my eventual move to a liturgical church lay in my love for all things medieval. In graduate school I took a course on monasticism and began to identify more and more with a life of prayer, both privately and in community. I suppose I could have gone all the way and become a Roman Catholic, but I was unwilling to alienate my poor mother, who had grown up as the only Protestant in a Catholic neighborhood in the 1920s and 30s and regarded Catholicism with suspicion. I myself was happier with the “middle way” promised by the Episcopal church.

Over the next decades I had an on-again off-again relationship with church. Sometimes I was gung-ho, other times I pulled back. I had trouble reconciling myself with doctrine, although as a teacher of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history I came to know a lot about it. The bulk of my teaching career was at a Lutheran college, where Christian faith was important in the lives of many of the students. I enjoyed the give-and-take of discussions with them, and felt a comfortable congruence between my own affinities and my workplace.

Eventually, however, I turned to Buddhism. It was a gradual change, beginning with exposure to the general idea of Buddhism as represented by its most famous teachers, such as Thic Nhat Hahn. There was a Buddhist meditation center in my town, but it took me awhile to get up the nerve to pay them a visit. I’m not sure why it seemed so daunting at first. Perhaps I saw people who became Buddhists as exotic, or as having a level of awareness and commitment beyond the ordinary. After all, being a Christian in the U.S. is almost a sort of default, whereas becoming a Buddhist requires the effort of swimming against the tide. Such were my barely-formed thoughts at the time.

The form of Buddhism I profess is Theravadan Buddhism, as interpreted through the insight meditation tradition taught in the West. Soon enough, I realized that this phenomenon like everything else is a reflection of its time and place. Much of the population in sanghas and retreat centers across the West falls into the white middle class, although western Buddhist leaders are making efforts to bring in people of color or of modest economic backgrounds. To carry my self-labeling further, I practice Burmese insight as handed down by Mahasi Sayadaw. Don’t worry if none of this makes sense; there will be plenty of opportunity for elaboration.

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