It was not until a few months ago that I first called myself a Buddhist. Yes, I’m a bit slow on the uptake. In retrospect it would seem I’ve been a Buddhist for a couple of years at least.
After more than 40 years as a “cradle Episcopalian,” it dawned on me that my personal theology had…um…strayed from the orthodox. Yes, that’s a nonjudgmental way to describe it. More importantly, my Christian religious practice as a whole was not feeding me the way it used to. The social aspect of worship, the singing, the prayerfulness still spoke to me, but my core spirituality was steadily becoming malnourished. Eventually, I was no longer receiving the essential spiritual nutrients to even make the effort to attend church.
I know now that my shift from Christianity to Buddhism was taking place at that time. Eastern spiritual practices—primarily Buddhist in origin, but also Hindu—first became a part of my Christian prayer life in my early 20s, as I was testing a calling to enter seminary and become a priest. Thomas Merton was my primary teacher, introducing me to the priceless value of meditation, but there also were Bede Griffiths and Basil Pennington. These great teachers helped to deepen my prayer life, to become a better Christian through the use of Buddhist and Hindu practices. I continue to cherish their tutelage.
The change in my life did not end there; an internal transformation continued unnoticed and unabated. You might say the percentage of me that was Buddhist grew as the Christian part diminished.
Figuratively at least, the crossover took place a couple of years ago and I became a Buddhist. I resisted calling myself one at that time. Not that I was resistant to being a Buddhist; I was reluctant to call myself anything. There was no desire to rush from shedding one label, only to slap on a different label. But my study and practice took off, and what had been a slow, steady shift in my spirituality became a tidal wave. Coming as it did at the same time that my divorce was finalized, my house was sold and Hayley and I moved to a new home, and the great love of my life, my dearest Whitney, was rediscovered…well, the change was breathtaking.
“I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the spiritual community until I reach enlightenment.”
I had seen the words of taking refuge in the Three Jewels, or words very similar, countless times before realizing this past fall that I had, in fact, already taken refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma. And I was actively looking for a Sangha or Buddhist community at that time (a tale for another campfire). They were never just words again for me, henceforth spoken from the heart and not just the mouth. They encapsulate what makes me a Buddhist.
“Buddhist” is not a label I need to wear. It is simply one that fits.