[Update, March 17, 2017: While I honestly and proudly preserve this post for posterity, I no longer call myself a Buddhist and have decided again to embrace Judaism. Read more here.]
An explanation to myself & possibly others as to why I now call myself a Buddhist
I have decided to choose a religion. I do not take this decision lightly. I only professed a particular religious belief in two brief phases of my life. The rest of the time, I have wandered freely, using my own intellectual and spiritual instincts to navigate.
I have found the wandering quite rewarding. It has provided me with countless amazing, humbling, and inspiring experiences. But wandering is not enough for me.
All the while, I have yearned for spiritual structure, direction, and community. I have yearned for a teacher. I am no religious genius; I'm a terrible procrastinator, and I am prone to fits of depression and nihilism in which I fluctuate between indulgence and asceticism, doing nothing to deepen my practice.
I know I need a teacher (or three) to smack some sense into me at those times. I also need a community and shared set of life practices for grounding. I've never had any of these privileges before.
I was raised in a culturally Jewish family — a proud and established one. But they weren't and aren't very spiritual people. Despite my extensive Jewish education, I never felt even the slightest stirring of emotional connection to the religion when I was growing up. This gave me very little reason to enjoy being a part of the Jewish People, since that mostly seemed to consist of being bored out of my skull at interminable rituals in uncomfortable clothes.
My spiritual yearnings were intense, even as a kid. But I found no answers in Judaism, and my daily education was in a secular, fiercely liberal environment that encouraged me to find my own answers. So, mostly, I wandered solo, except for those two short, fervent religious periods in my youth.
My first religious period was when I was 12 years old, while my parents pressured me into fulfilling the observances and customs of entering Jewish "adulthood." In reaction, while I went through the motions outwardly, I began to explore and then practice tenets of the neo-pagan Wiccan religion, inspired by old Anglo-Saxon and Celtic traditions, which I learned about through several books.
I practiced these beliefs and rituals in complete secrecy. This was no teenage performance. I did my magic alone, at night, in the park across the street from my house and on the floor of my bedroom.
My beliefs in the unified, animating force of life and the sanctity of nature were genuine. When I cast a spell, I felt a surge of energy up and down my spine every single time. And I understood that I was not exerting some egoistic, controlling force on the world. I was just aligning and attuning myself to the way the world already was, so I could be a stronger part of it.
It was a really beautiful time in my life, but it was lonely. After a year or so, the isolation of this practice drove me to give it up in favor of more social teenage pursuits... mostly. I still do a little magic now and then.
The second religious period of my life was in college. I was lonely again. My high school girlfriend had broken up with me, I was about to turn 20 years old, and I didn't know who I was. I knew I wasn't the kind of nihilistic vacuum-person that stumbled around the lawns of the campus every night, knocking over garbage cans, moaning balefully like undead zombies, though.
I was getting my spiritual questions through school, taking lots of religious studies and philosophy classes. I was getting my answers, such as they were, just by soaking up experiences and listening to lots of reggae music. Seriously, reggae music showed me that the religious traditions with which I grew up actually spawned some pretty righteous people and ideas.
Most of the Biblical story was violent, paranoid, repressive craziness, I knew, but some people on the fringes dug open-minded mystical experiences and used Jewish language and ritual to express it. Maybe there was a place for me in the Jewish people after all.
My hesitant expeditions into the Jewish community at my school proved astoundingly successful. In short order, I had a large, loving, radical, mystical posse of people with whom I could sing and pray all the time. I jumped headlong back into rituals I had found meaningless before, and I learned new ones with an insatiable hunger. My friends were my teachers; most of them had deeper Jewish educations and had long since made the self-discoveries I was just beginning to have.
As I look back now, some five years later, I can still easily call the Jewish period the highest, holiest, most ecstatic period of my life.
It was all about Kabbalah, really. I learned that the coolest Jews always believed that the outward religion was just a secret code to cover for the hippies — like us and the Hasidim — who knew what was really going on. We knew God was actually everything, everywhere, all the time, sacred and profane. All this "He," "King," "Father" stuff — not to mention all the arcane laws about counting hairs on cows and whatnot — was just code. We could speak the code in order to communicate (read: argue) with our people, but we who knew the code were just gleefully telling each other Kabbalistic inside jokes about the God-beyond-God the whole time.
It was ecstasy for two full years of the packed Jewish calendar. But it grew exhausting. The word games of the code were confusing. Our mental gymnastics through which we related to these absurd passages of Bronze Age scripture may have delighted my more Talmudic friends, but it tired me. I wanted to stop pretending to love an error-ridden book full of war, slavery, racism, and puerile misogyny.
But these weren't the most important reasons I left Judaism and haven't looked back. I can easily understand these lesser reasons. But the greater reasons are very difficult for me because it feels like I should righteously reject them, but I can't.
A small world
The main reason I left Judaism was that I was having trouble fitting into my surrounding society. Of course, I was raised to be proud of Jewish "chosenness" and the refusal to assimilate. But as my newly Jewish identity bumped into my surrounding post-modern American society over and over again, the trade-offs were no longer worth it.
At first, I wore my outsiderness as a badge of pride. I had never been treated like an Other before. When I grew my beard and began wearing a kippah in public, people suddenly marked me as different. Idiot townies yelled things from cars. People said "Shalom!" to me all the time. The Chabadniks who accosted everyone in front of all their friends on the campus's main drag no longer had to ask me, "Are you Jewish?" They could just start preaching at me immediately. It was fun! It was a conversation starter.
The first bad signs came from within the student Jewish community. I started dating a non-Jew. She came with me to Shabbat services a few times, and she loved it, and I loved her for it. She didn't see the dirty looks, though. She wasn't trained to see them. I was.
I'll never forget the time we were walking together near campus one weekend, and two of the school's proudest, most conservative Jewish boys were walking the other way on the other side of the street. Their heads turned all the way around watching us like they were in The Exorcist. I wanted no part of a people that would treat its own and the people they love like that.
As I began to feel more comfortable outside the Jewish people than inside, I started to resent the idea of chosenness in a way I never had before.
Choosing not to be chosen
When I was young, I disliked Jewishness because it was too big, always imposing itself, coloring my experiences, interrupting my play and exploration, and providing answers for everything whether I wanted them or not. But this time, as I approached actual adulthood (not Bar Mitzvah-adulthood), I resented the smallness of Judaism, its insularity, its inward focus, and its inaccessibility.
I began to realize how exotic and inscrutable Judaism looked to many people on the outside, and I began to feel the heat of their eyes on me. It began to burn. I felt objectified. I knew it was an immense privilege to be able to take off the garb and assimilate back into the American power structure. Only white men can do that. We don't have to feel objectified all the time.
But all the same, I wasn't gaining anything by martyring myself beyond an immature sense of rebelliousness, so I took off the kippah. I was no longer reverent of the jealous God of the Bible, anyway. Judaism was a fine religion, I thought, better than most, but I couldn't be a part of it. At least I could say I really, earnestly tried this time.
So for five years, I wandered again. I wandered into adulthood, maintaining my spiritual curiosity and satisfying it here and there with fleeting fascinations. I even found a yearly ritual, Burning Man, which provides a sense of peoplehood, pilgrimage, ecstatic expression, and even some mystical illumination, all with the right amounts of humor, irony, and absurdity to fit into the beastly pastiche of contemporary American society. But that's a festival, not a religion. It's not substantive enough to fulfill that need for structure, direction, community, and teachers in my life.
I'm lonely again. The wandering is getting me nowhere. I have all kinds of questions about my work, my relationships, love and desire, my whole direction, and I can't come up with any more answers for myself. For the third time in my life, I have come to the conclusion that I need to try a path that is already well-trodden, so I can see where others have walked. I have chosen the path of Buddhism. It feels good to proclaim that out loud.
I have studied Buddhism for a long time. The first book I read about it was An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World by Pankaj Mishra, which I read in high school. It was there I encountered the Adittapariyaya Sutta, in which the Buddha explains to a bunch of fire worshippers that "everything is ablaze" with holiness, not just the literal fires they worship.
Initially, I took from this sutta that Buddhism's essential offering is really more of a method, a way of being, than a discrete faith to espouse. It seemed that Buddhism could be considered and practiced by anyone, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, so that's what I did.
Throughout college, even as I practiced Judaism and worshipped my image of the Jewish God, I studied and practiced Buddhism as an explicit part of my curriculum. Yes, I had a for-credit meditation "section" three days a week, and I was blessed by the visits of many eminent Buddhist teachers for on-campus lectures and retreats. What can I say? I went to a cool school.
But while it may be true that Buddhism can be a sort of hobby alongside any kind of belief, I no longer find that sufficient. I need more commitment. I need more discipline. I need a community around it, and I need teachers in it, if I am to get anywhere. And I want to. I see that Buddhism can be a religion, and I believe in it. I believe that the Buddha's prescription might work. On that tenet of faith, I suppose I am a Buddhist.
What All is ablaze?
What does it mean to be a Buddhist? It means I accept the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, and I believe in the direction of his Eightfold Path enough to start walking. And it means I have to engage with his teachings and those of his followers not as abstract, academic pursuits but as invested, personal ones, especially the ones I don't like.
It means I will start attending dharma talks and meeting Buddhist teachers and students in my community. It means I will have to change some of my habits and customs to reinforce the proper body-and-mindset. And it means I have to meditate every single day. No more excuses.
Why Buddhism? Because I find its expectations reasonable and its prescriptions believable, and because I identify pretty well with the Buddha's story. I have seen through experience that the mind is the amplifier of suffering, and I have seen that meditation works to relieve the mind of its bad habits. I believe in the notion of karma, that all things are unified in a great wave of expansion and contraction, starting and stopping, and that the ego is just another bubble on this thin surface of reality.
Do I believe in enlightenment? Do I believe in the cessation of suffering after the dissolution of the ego? Do I believe in reincarnation? I don't know.
Do I believe in practicing mindfulness, right action, right speech, right livelihood, and the rest? Do I believe in non-attachment to the transient things, thoughts, and feelings that comprise our experience? Do I believe in a community of people who can support each other as we wrestle with all this? Yes.
I am excited to see where this path goes.