What Drew Me to Buddhism: You Are What You See

I feel that how one views the universe (or, more simply, reality), and us in it–basically, what one believes and believes in, become the foundation of his or her mental health and personal happiness.  I also feel that all of us are better off choosing what makes sense–in finding a belief (or beliefs), and that then we must confidently believe in that way.  It seems to me this is natural, honest, and therefore, better for the heart and mind. Most importantly, belief that is chosen, I feel, is the true eye of one’s individual heart and mind, which show us what we believe, so it comes from within, is original, and is thus not contrived or forced. You could say that what we see as true, and thus believe, defines us. You are what you see?

In this article, I talk about belief-particulary personally found belief- and what caused me to find comfort in Zen, as opposed to another practice or faith. I do not wish to say, however, that one religion is better than another, for everyone. I do wish to tell my personal story, just as a painter, poet, novelist or film-maker attempts to show his personal vision, which is basically his or her mental experience.

As an example illustrating my frustration with those who might criticize a practitioner of a faith, and to draw an analogy between practitioners of a faith and artists (to show that belief is as personal as personal vision), let me digress and mention the film director Oliver Stone. He made the movie JFK to show what he and many see as a possible series of events explaining a part of history that has been unsatisfactorily explained by the government of the United States. He was criticized for poorly representing history. I heard him speak, and I was impressed with his detailed knowledge of the history and the era which he was a part of. He weaved together a story that was in shreds at all edges. A story that was left in a pile of uncertainty.  He was not supposed to represent history. As an artist, his charge was/is to represent what his perceptions, available knowledge and his talents reflect. His responsibility was/is to himself, in showing what his mind and its perception of the world has shown him.

A Practioner of a faith, be it a celebrated one or one that is invented by oneself (or an amalgam of other faiths) has one obligation; to see it, understand it, follow it, and perhaps, express himself honestly about it. When you think about it, this is how Christianity and Buddhism came about; Hanmaum, and Interbeing, too. Through self-reflection, Jesus and Gautama found ways to express their truths, as truth was revealed to them, though it diverged or grew from practices of the day. Dae Heng Kun Sunim does this. Thich Nhat Hanh, does this. We all do this, to one degree or another. Spiritual individuals-whether they are great prophets, monks, or the sons of God or artists-change faiths–or at least practices of a faith-to present their perceptions of those faiths and reality as they see it. This is what the human mind should be able to do, without criticism.

I was raised Roman Catholic, with a heavy sprinkling of born again-ism, in Long Island’s sleepy New York suburb of Lynbrook. With  it’s “prefix” and “suffix”  reversed, Lynbrook is Brooklyn, so you can imagine who renamed it, from the original Pearsall’s Corners, and perhaps, who settled it, for the most part. I myself was born in Brooklyn. How did I wind up a “Zennist”, studying Buddhism in Korea?

I was taught to love everyone. And, in my opinion, I was raised in  a country (and especially a state), where it is-as my friend Tony Watkins says-practically un-American not to criticize your nation. So I was brought up to be compassionate, but critical. My mother was the church-goer, my father the activist-democrat. So I grew up thinking. A lot. Thinking and writing, and going to church on Sundays. But church, the older I got, seemed to gather people with a less than compassionate practical philosophy and a very conservative style of politics. 

As a teen-ager, I had taken up reading American cold war history, specifically about the Viet Nam “conflict”.  I had become an Urgent Action letter-writer for Amnesty International’s Program to Abolish The Death Penalty. I marched against war and military Aid to Latin American countries.  The biggest opponents of what I was doing seemed to all be people of the faith I was raised in. I couldn’t understand this.

It had seemed to me that everything that the Christian faith asked us not to do, we were actually making a part of our daily lives, and in fact, it seemed these were the real actions and concepts Christians believed (in practice, anyway) and this bothered me; specifically support of the death penalty, interventionist wars,  a lack of compassion for the homeless, those with aids, those in jail, and policies that violated the sanctity of a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body.

In short, no matter how I looked at it, most of the church people I knew were either in support of, or oblivious to the most egregious violations of compassion worldwide, and not on a small scale. 

Then there was the religious view of science. The religion I was raised in had a history of going against common sense, empiricism, and reality, quite frankly.  I haven’t mentioned it, but my passion as a boy was astronomy and I loved biology too, and I was always hearing “we didn’t come from monkeys” from religious people. Well, evolution doesn’t say we do, either. I was forced to see that many people of the church are victims and purveyors of gross ignorance.

One day in the bookstore, I came across a book by Thich Nhat Hanh.  The Venerable Tich Nhat Hanh brought together spirituality and social action. This represented for me, responsible, and spiritually honest living.

When I was in high school, it was the church goers who were attacking free speech, trying to put prayer in schools (not fair in a nation that professes the idea that religion and state be separate), and trying to say we shouldn’t give condoms to people in Africa, where AIDS was running rampant.

The Buddhists I met and read about lived the lives they believed in. In fact, many were vegetarians, pacifists, and very open-minded and progressive. None were telling me I had to give up believing in the sensible laws of physics, or of evolution, or that I had to support one or another war. They didn’t teach through fear, or a greedy desire to go to Heaven.

I am aware that there are good Christians, that they have charities all over the world, and that there is much virtue in that faith and the many denominations of Christianity. In fact,  I am still happy to say I have a Christian heart, while maintaining that I am attempting to cultivate a Buddhist mind. I still go to church, from time to time, and my girlfriend is a protestant, bringing much love and forgiveness into my life through her faith. 

I even believe the Christian-Judaic foundation is part of what makes America and other Westernized democracies great in certain respects, for it instills the notion of the sanctity of the individual and his rights in society; something I feel is lacking to certain major degrees in Confucianist and other male-dominated societies, which has definite deleterious effects on the growth of the individuals in them, politically, maturation-wise, and spiritually.

Buddhism seems to conflict very little-if at all-with science, carries a major underlying message of love and compassion (with no exceptions), and seems to be practiced by people who show a great deal of peace of mind–more than the adherents in the God-based faiths in my observation–who always seem to be leading their nations to war.

So, I read Tich Nhat Hanh, and it made me peaceful. I read Suzuki, and it made me sit.  I read Lao Tzu, and it made me see great wisdom (I still love the compassionate stories of Jesus, however, and think they are of  prime importance in learning to be a humane human being).

In my early twenties, I poured coffee for His Holiness The Dalai Lama at The Rainbow Room in New York City, and I realized I had never seen a spiritual or political leader more jovial and happy in my life. In fact, I had never seen anyone who laughed so heartily while shaking so many hands. Thoughts of Santa Clause entered my mind. ‘This man was at peace’, I thought.

I found people of a softer mind and infinitely less judgemental heart  in the Buddhist friends I made, and finally, in Korea, I discovered a way to practice that showed a reflection of that idea I cherish: the importance of the “individual”.

Dae Heng Kun Sunim’s focus on the “Juingong”, or the True Doer of our actions, to me, advocates the bringing of  salvation to the individual from the individual, so to speak. I don’t find it conflicts with theistic faith, either, in that Jesus, for example, taught that the kingdom of heaven is within, as is God.

The Buddha taught that man should take refuge in himself (not in The Buddha, or in a god). For many years, to my eyes, I had felt it was the process of supplication to an exterior source that was causing the apparent  lack of true spiritual growth, open-heartedness, and open-mindedness (as well as an increase in  greed and feelings of victim-hood) in the people around me who were dedicated to the theistic faiths.

*I do not actually claim to be a Buddhist. I find the sects of Buddhism, like those of Christianity, do not follow what the Buddha taught exactly, any more than Christians really follow Jesus, but what I like about being associated with this practice is that there are no real major divisions among Buddhists causing major strife over differences in opinion, and there is no hell-fire and brimstone talk that teaches out of fear. You don’t see Buddhists supporting war, or fist-fighting, for that matter. Well, not much, anyway.

Finally, I think of myself as a Zennist. Meditation was at the heart of The Buddha’s enlightenment, and his teaching, and it has been at the center of any self-induced growth I  have had. That is what makes Buddhism a person and people-transforming practice; the sitting, the looking inward, and the cleaning of the mind’s “slate”, as it were; the opening of the heart, where truth comes in through a lack of arrogance and an increasing of peace, and where dogma plays no part.

To me, this is the true value of any religion or philosophy; how well it transforms individuals, and then, masses of those individuals, such that they are more peaceful, loving, kind, and open to learning and growth in all positive ways. Any belief that limits these virtues is to be questioned and examined, to the greatest possible depth, because, as I said, you are what you see; it becomes your belief, the foundation of your mental health and personal happiness, and affects those around you.

8 thoughts on “What Drew Me to Buddhism: You Are What You See”

  1. Thank you, Carl, for your open-hearted story.
    I think people mold the religion according to their state of mind, no matter how it is put to them to be nice(!) there will be plenty of ways to distort it. I am sure you can dig and find stories about Zen that would make you say that it is terrible, like that story about master cutting off the finger of a child monk, or some red thread zen or Japaneze military during WWII who were totally zen and were killing out of mercy. I grew up in former Soviet Union, religion was discouraged in every way, but we were taught to live together in peace and work for the good of others, there was equality and the ideals were great actually, but in reality it was not much so.
    I think to know that truth is one is important to see that there are many similar things in religions, at least in ideal.
    It is not only buddhism can transform people, there are Christian saints like St. Fransis, St. Clair, and many others who with their love and compassion for others transformed not only themselves but people around them.
    In Buddhist temples people also bow like in Mosque or Orthodox church, I noticed that Korean buddhist rituals on many occasions are similar to those of Russian Orthodox.
    Meditation might bring initial peace, but it is not the final result, -discovering that what religions are talking about, seeing that within yourself, without faith in your foundation, or God within you, how could you ever let go.
    I like how Dalai Lama said that it is not possible to say which religion is better, people are different, so there needs to be diversity in teachings, but it is possible to say which one is more profound.

    1. Thank YOU, Tanya, for reading,

      And thanks for taking the time to comment.

      You are right; not only buddhism can transform people; anything can! That’s the beauty of life!

      Oe thing I like about Buddhism and Zen is that so much is discussed, and not in a dogmatic way, especially in the Dharma talks with our teacher, in the Han Maum way. Marcus, Joe and Joseph-I believe–might attest to how our teacher, Chong Go Sunim, discusses things with us as a true teacher, yes, but as a brother, too, in such a way as I am encouraged to think often of Buddhism, or Zen, (Seon, in Korea [different from Zen in Japan]) as “The Un-Religion”.

      I do feel, however, that meditation, which is the heart of Buddhism, and Zen-to me-is the best way to transform oneself by intent, be it Christain meditation, Buddhist meditation, or Muslim meditation. But then, as far as I know, the other faiths don’t pactice it quite the way Buddhists do. It’s the sitting, that counts!

      Thanks again!

  2. Hello Carl, nice post…

    I too was raised Christian, and left Christianity for many of the same reasons you mention: hypocrisy and inauthenticity amongst its members. You mention that there are “good Christians” all over the world with charities. However, usually their “charitableness” has an agenda, which is to convert the people they are helping to their religion – to get people to “accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior.” Oh yes, I know the language well 🙂 So it is not as “pure” as it seems.

    I am not a Buddhist, in the religious sense. But I love Buddhist wisdom and some of its teachings. So I lean in that direction, without the religious container. And yet, I am finding that there seems to be an “evangelical” side of Buddhism emerging. There are Buddhists whose *intent* it seems is to “spread the teachings” in order to “change the world” (? convert) – shunning people who are not Buddhists by *discriminating.* I recently read on a blog that there were ways to determine who “looks like a Buddhist” on their blog or twitter pages, or to know if they are a “serious Buddhist” by whether they are using the “right” words or not. Wow – I find this troubling. Seems to me this kind of discrimination comes from a dualistic, prejudiced and unenlightened mind… And sounds very similar to the fundamentalist Christians.

    Fortunately, most of my interactions with Buddhists on line have been completely accepting, loving and compassionate.

    Another thing I have noticed about Buddhists that draws me to them is that they are completely authentic! (The ones I engage with anyway), which I find so refreshing. And – they are completely devoted to the Dharma – (which I interpret to mean universal Truth) – even if it doesn’t come in a “Buddhist” package. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your journey in an authentic way!

  3. Dear Christine,

    Thank you for reading, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I think I understand the people trying to convert others, though Chong Go might hit me over the head in jest for saying that.

    When people think they have the message that will save others, it is in their natural human tendencies-if they were socialized compassionately- to share it. However, I am not for the way it is often shared, with a glossy-eyed, fear based inspiration.

    The mormons interest me, insofar as when I talk to their young “elders” in Korea who are reaching out to people on the street-we have great conversations, and they seem very open-minded.

    The strangest experience I had talking about faith was when some young gentlemen took me to their chuch complex, we discussed the bible, and then they evealed that Jesus-or God-had a bride, and lo and behold, she’s Korean!

    Thank you again!

  4. Hi Carl!

    Great to see you posting here Carl mate! Fabulous! And thank you! A fascinating first post, which – I hope you don’t mind – I’ll refer to a little in my next post here too.

    Thanks again so much for such interesting reading!

    Marcus _/\_

  5. Hi Carl … you mentioned me in your article! That’s awesome (and I don’t mean awesome in today’s sense of cool or groovy – I mean it in it’s original sense of inspiring awe)

    I like the stuff you’re writing about a lot. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about binaural beats for a little while, and reading your article on meditating and Zen reminded me of all that. Binaural beats! You should use them to help your meditation practice. Look them up on wikipedia or download some or ask me to send you some – I’ve got lots.

    I’m going to try to come back to Asia as soon as I can. Maybe September 1 or something like that. I hope I get a chance to visit you in Korea, or meet up somewhere else.

    -Tony Watkins
    a.k.a The Black Chicken, esq.

  6. Hi Tony, My Brother from The Big Apple!

    It is my pleasure to mention you, and your words. You have a great mind and I try to think in terms of how you think sometimes, paying silent credit to you, within.

    Thank you for saying you like what I am writing about (really?).

    I look forward to learning about binaural beats and more so to seeing you in Korea.

    I do not meditate nearly as much as I would like, but think it would be a great addition to any spiritual, intellectual, or healing practice. When I talk about meditation, however, I am talking about non-focused meditation. Meditation to open oneself.

    I hope you are blogging somewhere and give me the link. I have a link to your old blog on my site http://bitnacarlo.wordpress.com

    Love, Peace, and Joy!

  7. Marcus,

    Of course I don’t mind. I sort of thought people might see a negative bent to what I wrote (despite my not meaning to be negative, but simply honest about my experience), but I feel it had to be said. After all, sentiments like these have come out in Dharma talks, and I am sure they were not meant to be injurious. They were statements, honestly made, about observations.

    In a way, I wrote what I did for anyone close to me who finally comes to this site and doesn’t have the particular spiritual or mental exploratory experience or confidence to appreciate why one would move to another philosophy or religion for the bulk of his spiritual and mental cultivation. After all, it is not easy, in many respects, and the very notion of such a change is anathema to some. I have also taken flak lately, for practicing Buddhism, or Zen, as I prefer to call my practice.

    Anyway, glad to be here, and thanks for the support.

    Peace, Love, and Joy,


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