Chapter 9: A Meeting of the Buddhist Fellowship — Monday Evening
A dozen students were seated in a circle with a couple of empty chairs. One of the students got up to meet Thomas as he came to the door. "I’m Bill Putnam, the one you called. I’ve told the others that you were coming. We appreciate your interest in visiting our group. The student interns in the past have pretty much ignored us."
"Thanks, Bill. But I’m afraid I’m not coming in my official capacity. I’m coming more out of my own need to understand something about Buddhism."
"All the better," said Bill. "But none of us are scholars. Prof. Wilson knows a lot more about Buddhism than any of us will ever know. But maybe getting to know some Buddhists will supplement your study. Anyway, we’re glad you’re here. Is there anything in particular we can do to help you?"
Thomas was embarrassed. He had meant to slip into the back of a room where Buddhists were worshipping just to get some sense of what was going on. "I didn’t mean to interrupt. I wish you would just go ahead with your services and let me sit here with you."
"I’m afraid we don’t have what you could call a service," Alice Kaufman spoke up. "Before you came we were meditating for about an hour. But we don’t have a teacher, and we come from different traditions; so even that is awfully loose. After meditating we like to sit and talk about our lives as Buddhists at a Christian university. Since you’ve come, we would like to talk about whatever would interest you."
Something had been bothering Thomas without his being clear what it was. Suddenly he realized that, without thinking about it consciously, he had been expecting that Buddhists would be Asians. But in this group only two looked Asian. These young people were not Buddhists just because they had been brought up to be Buddhists! Living in a predominantly Christian culture, they had chosen to be Buddhists. Why? "Thanks," he said. "I guess what would help me most would be to hear you talk about why you are Buddhists, what it means to you."
"No two of us would answer that in the same way," Alice replied, "but I, too, think it would be the best way to get acquainted. I’ll speak for myself, and then some of the others can talk.
"I grew up in a very secular home. My father was a secular Jew and my mother called herself a Protestant but never showed any signs of interest in going to church or sending me there. They seemed content to enjoy what are called the good things of life, and we always had plenty of them. They were very good to me. I had what’s called a happy childhood, but still I wasn’t quite satisfied. Looking back I would say things were too flat, too superficial. I was hungry for more depth.
"I had heard people talk about mysticism, sometimes positively and sometimes contemptuously. It sounded like ‘depth.’ I decided to try to learn about it. I read some Christian mystics such as Brother Lawrence, Evelyn Underhill, and Thomas Merton. I liked what I read, and I thought I might become a Christian.
"I visited some churches during that period, a synagogue, too. My parents had no objection. But I couldn’t make any connection between what I found there and what had appealed to me in my reading. I even talked with a priest once and also a rabbi. But they both discouraged my mystical interests. They thought what I needed was to be involved in their youth programs. But those seemed as flat to me as my homelife.
"It was through Merton that I got acquainted with the writings of the Buddhist missionary to this country, D. T. Suzuki. That was when I really came alive. I read everything I could find by him. I’m not saying I understood him, just that he spoke to me. I decided I was a Buddhist. I wanted to be saved in the Buddhist sense: to attain enlightenment. But I never met another Buddhist until I came here to the university. It has been great to find others who are really concerned with personal religious experience and can help me learn to meditate. I’m a long, long way from experiencing enlightenment, but meditation has come to mean a great deal to me. I know something genuine happens, something that’s quite strange to my parents and their friends — and to the Christians I know, too."
"I’m afraid I don’t really know what you’re saying," Thomas admitted. "I know something about mysticism, of course, at least from reading about it. Are you saying that Suzuki pointed you to the mystical experience better than Merton did?"
"I don’t know whether the Buddhist experience is mystical or not," Alice answered. "In one sense it seems so very ordinary and secular. It’s just realizing what’s really going on, letting things be what they are, not imposing our ideas and expectations on them, not interpreting them in terms of our desires and fears, just letting go of everything we’ve clung to. Of course, I haven’t accomplished all that. But in bits and pieces I have come to feel free and more alive, more present. The world seems fresher and more zestful. So I get a sense of what full enlightenment would be, and meanwhile I’m grateful for the changes that are taking place in me."
Thomas did not know what to say. He was glad Bill spoke up.
"I guess I should go next. My story is different. I was brought up in the church, a quite conservative church. There was a lot of talk about the danger of eternal damnation and how we are saved by the blood of Jesus. We were even encouraged to give a lot of money to save the souls of the heathen. It wasn’t at all what Alice calls ‘flat.’ People were excited and intense and deeply committed.
"Since it was the only world I knew, I believed everything I was told. But one day I met one of those ‘heathen.’ My neighbors had traveled in India, and a Hindu family who had befriended them there came to spend a week with them. When my neighbors saw me looking on curiously, they invited me to come over to meet the visitors. I was twelve at the time, and I was fascinated by the difference in dress, manners, and accent. I spent as much time with them as I could. I had never met such gracious, cultivated, and genuinely devout people.
"I could not fit that experience with what I heard in church, and I’m afraid I became a rebel. My parents forced me to go to Sunday school, church, and youth group. But all I did was cut up and ask embarrassing questions. The church was relatively tolerant of adolescent rebellion, but mine went too far. No one admitted it, but they were all glad when my parents gave up and let me stop going.
"Meanwhile I had begun to read about India and especially about Indian religion. It sounded so much more profound and true than what I had heard in church. It was also much more tolerant. They could accept Jesus as an avatar or a Boddhisattva, a manifestation of the divine, and they did not deny that people could find salvation through faith in him. That seemed so much better than the church’s teaching that God sends everyone to hell who doesn’t believe as it teaches.
"There were other things I liked, too. They were concerned for other animals, not only human beings. I’ve always been horrified by the way we raise and butcher animals. But in Christian circles people made fun of me for being so sentimental. God gave us animals to kill and eat, I was told. They have no souls. In the literature of India I found a deep compassion for all sentient beings. I became a vegetarian and stood my ground against Christian ridicule. Finally, I announced that I was a Buddhist, not because the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism mattered to me. I didn’t understand them. But the stories of the life and teachings of the Buddha moved me deeply. He was so selfless, so serene, so profound, and he generated such peace among those with whom he spoke.
"That really shocked my parents and their friends. They preferred that I be a rebel and renegade. I think they would have been happier if I had become a drug addict than a well-behaved, conscientious Buddhist. I’m afraid their reaction didn’t do much to improve my image of Christianity.
"But let me hasten to say I don’t feel so negative any longer. If all Christians were like Chaplain Levovsky, I would see Christianity as a wonderful religion. What a great woman! She even meditates with us sometimes. But it’s your time to tell us about yourself. How did you come to your Christian faith, and what do you believe as a Christian? Do you think God is going to throw us all into everlasting torment because we are Buddhists?"
Thomas suddenly felt embarrassed that he had thought he might be able to bring some of these Buddhists to Christ. What could he say? Warn them that indeed they must turn to Christ to escape hellfire? No, that would only confirm their worst suspicions of Christianity. Anyway, faced with the spiritual journeys of Alice and Bill, he certainly could not condemn them. Would God be less understanding than he? "No, of course not," he murmured. He grew very uncomfortable. He really didn’t feel like telling his story. What was there to tell? He had accepted what he was told as a child, deeply internalized it, and sincerely tried to live by it. He had never really searched, not until now. What kind of a testimony to Christ would it be to tell them that? The room was feeling very warm. "Thanks very much for sharing with me," he muttered. "I’ve got to go."
Outside and alone he could not remember ever being so miserable. He had been invited to give his Christian witness, and he had run away instead. But worse, he had decided he had no witness to give! He did not even know whether he was a believer. "Maybe all this stuff about Jesus is just hocum," he thought wretchedly. "Maybe even Chaplain Levovsky puts too much stock in it." For the first time in his twenty-four years Thomas was doubting, really doubting. "There may not be any literal hell as a separate place," he thought, "But there’s hell all right. And I’m in it."
He felt dizzy. He had always known his faith was important to him, but only in this moment of doubt did he truly realize how important. Who was he apart from his faith? He couldn’t even think about that. His whole identity was bound up with believing.
Of course, there were more "practical" questions, too? Could his marriage survive if Mary learned the depth of his doubt? He would certainly have to choose another profession, and nothing else had ever interested him. All those years of preparation wasted! And what would his parents think of him?
But important as those questions were they stayed at the edges of his consciousness. It was his own existence, his soul, that was at stake. He was falling into an abyss.
In the depths of such doubt Thomas could hardly think at all. Yet he did remember that the young Buddhists had talked appreciatively about Prof. David Wilson. And he remembered also that Prof. Wilson was a loyal churchman. At least Wilson might understand what was troubling him. He must talk to someone!