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Opinion >  Column

Faith and Values: Making the decision to become Buddhist is a personal choice

Spokane FāVS editor Tracy Simmons.   (Nataly Davies)
Spokane FāVS editor Tracy Simmons.  (Nataly Davies)

Because I write about faith, people often ask me what religion I am.

Sometimes I stumble over my answer. I admit I worry what people will think when I say, “I’m a Buddhist.”

It sounds so … trendy, which I am not. At the garden store, Buddha’s statues have become as popular as St. Francis.

According to Pew Research, the number of Buddhists in North America is growing and will continue to do so over the next few decades.

In a SpokaneFāVS column from 2015, Sarah Conover wrote, however, that it’s not Buddhism that’s become popular, but mindfulness.

“Indeed a tsunami of mindfulness teachers, books, films, workshops, and retreats have found their way into every corner of American society and its institutions from schools to psychotherapy, to medicine, to science, to professional sports, to corporate trainings and even to the military,” she wrote.

The idea of practicing a heightened state of awareness regarding my thoughts and emotions on a moment-to-moment basis is something, I admit, that did initially attract me to Buddhism.

I learned about it by reading Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

“Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present, and at one with those around you and with what you are doing,” he wrote.

The more I read, the more I realized his teachings were influencing how I engaged with the world.

How I spoke was changing, how I approached relationships, how I consumed things.

I liked this change and wanted to continue on this path. Buddhism was resonating with me.

I grew up in a Christian home. It was a debauched version, though, that taught hate, not love, and fear, not grace.

I memorized the 10 Commandments as a kid and followed a lot of rules. But I was just going through the motions, following orders.

Though I had, and continue to have, a deep respect for Jesus and his teachings, nothing about the faith I grew up with impacted my daily living the way Buddhism was doing.

I had done some reporting on Sravasti Abbey, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, in Newport and began reading books written by its abbess, Ven. Thubten Chodren.

She had a way of putting Eastern teachings into Western terms I could understand. I began watching the abbey’s daily YouTube videos, Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner, and corresponding with the monastics there.

It was during this spiritual journey I learned about the five Buddhist Precepts:

  1. To abstain from taking life.
  2. To abstain from taking what is not given.
  3. To abstain from sexual impurity.
  4. To abstain from false speech.
  5. To abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind.

I appreciated these principles and was ready to become a Buddhist. What was next?

A nun from the abbey explained. Since Buddhism isn’t theistic, I didn’t have to ask anyone into my heart. There was no baptism or special ceremony. It was a personal choice that could be as private or public as I wanted.

The five precepts weren’t even a requirement, the monastic explained. If I wanted to, I could choose to commit to all of them, or just some of them.

So one evening about six years ago, alone in my living room, I made a vow to adopt these values. I couldn’t be happier with this spiritual decision.

However, I told Ven. Chodron once that I still don’t know if I can rightly call myself a Buddhist. I don’t have a sangha, (a Buddhist community) and I could certainly be more disciplined in following the dharma (the teachings).

She said I’m a Buddhist if that’s what I intend to be. After all, that’s why we call it a practice.

In my upcoming columns I plan to write about the precepts and how they influence my life. First up next month: abstaining from taking life.

Tracy Simmons, a longtime religion reporter, is a Washington State University scholarly assistant professor and the editor of SpokaneFāVS, a website dedicated to covering faith, ethics and values in the Spokane region.

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