Monday, November 14, 2011
So you're a Buddhist now
My family belongs to a Unitarian-Universalist meetinghouse, a spiritual/philosophical/religious tradition even more obscure than Buddhism. A lot of people have some idea of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. Even most UUs couldn't list all seven of that tradition's principles.
Our minister has on occasion talked about the need to have "an elevator talk" ready. Say you are waiting for an elevator, and you get into conversation with someone. For some reason, it comes up that you are a UU. The person asks, "What's that?" just as the elevator arrives, so you have the time it takes for the elevator to get to the floor of whoever gets off first to explain it.
I've been thinking about this because I find myself in a position where I will be publicly identified as a Buddhist. This is something new for me -- representing for Sid in a forum that is not primarily a gathering of Buddhists.
I feel it probably would be wise to know what to say to curious -- or conversational -- questions. (Side note: If you'll be dealing with relatives over the approaching holidays who aren't aware or accepting of your explorations into Buddhist life, it might be something you also want to contemplate.)
Being able to answer curious -- or vaguely hostile (what, the Catholic Church isn't good enough for you anymore?) -- questions from others means that I have to look at my own questions and look even deeper for the answers. Contemplation breeds clarity.
The best answer I've ever heard to the question "what is Buddhism?" is that it's how we walk in the world. It's meditation and study and learning endless lists of things with funny names, but all of that is in service of ending suffering for ourselves and others. It's a way of uncovering our own deepest values and living in accordance with them. It's being present and developing presence.
Generally, when people ask me about Buddhism and my relationship to it, I gauge their interest before going in too deeply. As every mother knows, answer the question you're asked with information that's at the level of the questioner. Don't explain reproduction to a 5-year-old who wants to know where they come from before determining that the appropriate answer isn't Brooklyn, and don't feel that you have to explain the meaning of emptiness and non-self to someone who says, "So what's Buddhism about?"
For me, it's a practice of trying to be present with what's in front of me and to interact with the world with kindness. To do that, I meditate and I study.
Feel free to change the subject now. But if you're interested, I can go into more detail. Or we could talk later.