Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on July 21, 2014

Way back at the beginning of my attempts to meditate, I used to wonder how silly I must look sitting there trying to meditate, much less saying prayers of any kind. I seemed like such a hypocrite for, after all, I am not particularly religious. If anything, at that time I was in full reaction to my Catholic upbringing, which was, spiritually speaking, rather brutal. Anything that smacked of religion or laying down the law was immediately off the menu.

My experience in Catholic school, catechism class, mass on Sundays, and being an altar boy left its mark. About the only good thing that came from my brush with Catholicism was a sense of mystery about life, and a flair for the mystical. Everything else was something to suppress in my memory. And I was so innocent, as this story will tell.

Starting in 7th grade I had run-ins with the nuns, sisters of the Dominican order, and knuckle-crackers at that. They had little metal-edged wooden rulers and knew how to use them. And our class was small, maybe twelve students in my entire grade. We had little parties in the basements of our parent's homes where we danced to 45 records and tunes like "Earth Angel" by the Penguins and "Sincerely" by the Moonglows. There was no question about dancing with all the girls. We knew each and every one of them and they knew us.

Anyway, on this particular day our nun was lecturing us on evolution and the fact that dinosaurs had never existed. Now those were fighting words for me. The little naturalist that I was already had quite a collection of fossils and hunted them whenever I could. No dinosaurs? There must be some mistake!

I raised my hand, stood up, and carefully explained to the sister and to the students that of course there were dinosaurs. All one had to do was go up on campus to the natural history building and there were huge towering skeletons of dinosaurs as big as a house. This was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I thought the nun would be delighted to know about dinosaurs. She was not moved by my revelation and ignored me. And then I found myself reacting.

I got up, walked out of the class, and began the long trek up the hill to where at the top stood the rectory where our priest, Father Kennedy, lived. Surely he knew about dinosaurs. I was ushered in by one of the ladies that worked there and before I knew it there was Father Leon Kennedy towering above me. I carefully explained to him what had happened, and that I had tried to explain it to Sister I-Don't-Remember-Her-Name. And here is where it gets interesting.

Father Kennedy took me with him out of the rectory and we walked together down the hill to the school, where he ushered me into the classroom and proceeded to explain to the nun that indeed there were dinosaurs and all of that. Of course I was overjoyed to share this news. I thought the sister would be so happy. It never even occurred to me that the whole event might not leave a good impression of me in the sister's mind. Anyway, that little event helped to set the course with Catholic school and me. And I later put frogs and snakes in the old flip-open wooden desks of some of the girls, but I digress. That is another story and meant to explain how I got beyond religion and into the dharma. After all, this was the 1950s.

So how did I eventually warm to the dharma, since Buddhism is (mistakenly in my opinion) classified by many as a religion and by that time I didn't like most flavors of religion? To my thinking, the dharma is simply a method to develop greater awareness, and nothing more. Awareness of what? The answer to that is awareness of my own mind and situation. And Buddhism is plainly non-theist. It has no god or creator to hover over me. Moreover, it has no beginning and no end-game hypotheses (no apocalypse) other than to point out that the mind has no beginning and no end. Buddha was an ordinary human being like you or I who found a way to become aware of and wake up from this dream called life the rest of us are all still having.

You may call Buddhism a religion if you wish, but to me it has none of the earmarks of religions as I had come to know them. Perhaps I should qualify that. I have no quarrel with someone like Jesus Christ or any other great teacher. I am sure I would love to meet any of the masters. Unfortunately (to give an example), it is some "Christians" and the way many of them (not all) behave that makes me uncomfortable, especially the fact that many won't let me "worship" as I please. Even the U.S. constitution does that!

I won't belabor this point, but it is still a sensitive spot with me. I respect anyone who has a sincere belief system as long as they leave me alone to have mine. But it is not friendly IMO if you constantly want to change me to your belief system. Show me "faith" by your actions and the happiness it brings you, not by trying to convert me, but I digress again. And I don't even "believe" in Buddhism. I find it a useful, practical way to live. That's all, but at the same time that is a lot. That is what I needed, a method or path I could actually walk that went somewhere.

As mentioned, I was raised as a naturalist, but not as a "scientist" of the materialistic kind. The natural world and all the plants and critters in it were wondrous to me, so I did develop the habit of looking and seeing, of tasting and touching this world around me. "Check it out" was my motto. And since the dharma is nothing other than test it and see for yourself, it felt immediately natural. In fact, when I discovered the dharma, it was already perfectly familiar to me, with its concepts like "impermanence," and the preciousness of the life of every being. I never stepped on spiders or any of that. The life of each being (no matter how small) is so precious. Like the Tibetans, I don't even smack mosquitoes, but just brush them off. Well, maybe I bend a wing or two if they persist, but that's about it.

In fact, all that the dharma really has been for me is a way to better confirm and organize what I already believed and instinctively knew about this world. The dharma describes the way things are perfectly. I could accept it and it helped me get over any embarrassment I had about being pure or sincere, about getting down on my knees and appreciating all that there is. After Catholicism, I was shy of my own innocence, afraid to trust the reverence I felt for life, at least with people. I definitely felt more at home with animals than with people.

And I was not about to bow before any god, as crazy as that sounds. But Buddhism is non-theist. It has no gods to bow down to. I was encouraged to feel 100% a part of all creation and the dharma helped me to get over myself and to be able to meditate and offer prayers without self-consciousness of being punished if I made mistakes, did something wrong.

Anyway, probably more than you want to know, but that is a little something as to how I took to the dharma like a fish to water.

[Photo taken yesterday around my neighborhood.]