I grew up in a Protestant family; to be more precise, a fundamentalist Baptist family, in a very traditional area of East Texas. Sunday School was a mandatory attendance for me and all my siblings; we got up every Sunday and put on our best clothes to go and listen to portly old ladies read to us from the King James version of the Bible.
Unfortunately, I was also an inquisitive child. I had been taught by my grandmother, who raised me, to question everything. Half black, half Native-American, she had herself been raised in two cultures, and even though she taught herself to read using the Bible, and could quote it verse for verse, she had a healthy skepticism about much of what it contained until the very end of her life. I’m afraid I inherited her skepticism, reinforced by traditional East Texas stubbornness that eventually led me away from the Baptist faith to Buddhism.
Graduating from high school at the age of 16, I hit the road to find out more about the wider world, and as soon as I turned 17, I convinced my mother to sign the papers so I could enlist in the army. For the first ten years of my military service, I experimented with a variety of religions, from Catholicism to the Brotherhood of Christopher.
In 1968, I ended up in Vietnam; at the tail-end of the Tet Offensive. My assignment put me in constant touch with the Vietnamese, some of whom were Catholic, but mostly Buddhists. I found in the Buddhist philosophy what I had been seeking; a way of living that valued respect, and love, but most importantly, believed that your fate in life was primarily in your own hands. There was no need of an intermediary between you and the afterlife. Your actions, day-to-day, were what mattered. You were encouraged to seek perfection, but, recognizing that this is difficult, you weren’t made to feel guilty for failing. The merit was in making the effort.
By this time, my grandmother had died, and my decision didn’t go down too well with the rest of my family. “How could I worship idols?”‘ they would ask. Pointing out that their fixation on crosses and crucifixes was hardly different that my respect for my little Buddha statue only angered them. For the first few years, there was anger and estrangement, which eventually gave way to bemusement. I was the strange member of the family; traveling to strange places, eating strange foods, speaking hard-to-pronounce and incomprehensible languages; sort of like the odd-ball uncle who shows up now and then for holidays that no one understands, but who is basically harmless.
I think for some of my relatives, there was even a grudging respect. After all, I never tried to convert them, as they often did me; and I was more at peace with my life than any of them. Anger was an emotion that I had learned to control – and for the most part, avoid. After forty years, they now accept me for what I am.
As for me, I found in Buddhism an inner peace and tranquility that had eluded me for the first two decades of my life. I no longer felt guilty for questioning; it became the natural order of things; a part of my quest for perfection. The middle path is where I found myself most comfortable. I avoid extremes, and not only has that benefitted me personally, but I’ve found it an asset in my career. When colleagues find themselves stranded in extreme positions, I am able to mediate the agenda back to the middle ground; a position from which compromise and eventual solution of problems becomes possible.