Widening my experience

(This post is a continuation of my story from my earlier post, How I Got Started.)

So I was meditating every week at the Tibetan Buddhist centre (and every day at home) and reading up on Buddhism. I wanted to learn more, but there were a few barriers.

For one, I’m an atheist. Like many Westerners, I’m also a sceptic. I don’t like taking things on faith, but I learned that the Buddha’s attitude wasn’t that people should believe his teachings uncritically on faith alone. Instead of telling people, “Come and believe,” he instead said, “Come and see!”

In other words, check it out, see if it works, and if it does then follow it.

That sounds like good advice to me. The trouble I had was that the only form of Buddhism with which I had thus far had any experience was Tibetan Buddhism, which has been described by some as the “Catholic Church of Buddhism” because it’s rather heavy on ritual, ceremonial clothing, funny hats and the like. There’s also the issue that there are a lot of Tibetan cultural accretions, which include such things as gods and the like. That was very off-putting to me as a sceptical atheist, although there is another way for a secular Buddhist to look at such things, as I hope to explain in a later post.

Anyway, I happened to post something about going to meditation classes on Facebook, and got into a conversation on there with a friend who is a former Buddhist prison chaplain. I told him about my reservations regarding Tibetan Buddhism and he told me he’d find out what other groups were active in my area that were less superstitious.

He came back to me later on with contact details for two groups. One, a Western Chan group, had recently stopped meeting, so I went along to the other: a Triratna Buddhist centre.

When I first went to the Triratna centre, for a drop-in meditation class, it immediately became apparent that there would be far less of a culture gap. It was run by Westerners, with very much a Western cultural outlook on Buddhism. I found it far more accessible.

In fact, I related to the style of the Triratna community so much that I signed up for a six-week meditation course and started reading up on their version of Buddhism.

Before every session of the six-week course, I would grill one of the founders of the centre about Buddhism. It was through talking to him, and reading both Buddhist scriptures and books about aspects of Buddhism, that I decided I wanted to be a Buddhist.

One sticking point for me was the concept of rebirth, which I can’t bring myself to accept. The man with whom I spoke each week told me that there are quite a few people there who have issues with rebirth, and explained that although he believes in it himself, and that to him Buddhism doesn’t make much sense without it, it is possible to be a Buddhist without believing it.

This was further cleared up for me later on by Tibetan Buddhist monk Karma Yeshe Rabgye in his blog post, Rebirth Doesn’t Matter. In fact, Yeshe’s blog and his book, Life’s Meandering Path, have been quite helpful to me in general.

Anyway, I still go to the Tibetan centre for meditation sessions, but I also go every week to the Triratna centre. Now that the meditation class is over, I go each week to the Triratna centre’s Sangha night (sangha means the Buddhist community), which typically consists of group meditation, dharma talks (dharma means the teachings of the Buddha) and a ritual known as the Threefold Puja. It’s something I find very meaningful, and I enjoy it.

So what’s the next step? Well, I will have to decide at some point whether the Triratna group or the Tibetan group is going to be my main sangha, and commit to going deeper with them. At the moment I’m leaning more toward the Triratna group, but that’s changed a few times.

Once I’ve committed to one group, the next step will no doubt be to take refuge, publicly, in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha), which is regarded in most Buddhist circles as the way one formally becomes a Buddhist. I have already done so privately, which is why I now regard myself as a Buddhist, but a public affirmation is the next step. When that will happen, we shall see. I’m not going to rush into it.

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