Why I am a Buddhist: A Westerner’s Perspective

 Carlota Ocampo

I did not come to Buddhism looking for a religion, a philosophy, or a new way of life.  You might say I came by accident.  As a person with bi-cultural roots - from a Latin American family, but born and raised in the United States - I was strongly immersed in both Catholic and protestant philosophies, practices, and beliefs about the world.  As a child, I was a great believer in Christian ideas of God, prayer, and redemption.  The world was simple, divided into good and bad, right and wrong, with no moral shading.  Belief in the tenets of Christian faith would save me from hell; prayer was a charm to both guide me and protect me from harm.

I lost faith early.  I wanted to believe, but my observations and experiences of the world interfered with my simple faith.  The idea of God seemed an iconic parent for grownups, punishing or rewarding based on loyalty and faithfulness to church dictates.  Church was outdated, the congregants uninvolved; its directives politicized, oppressive of women and people of color, preserving of social hierarchies and stratification.  Adults in my life seemed hypocritical, agnostic, or atheistic.  I became unable to go into a church and profess creeds I did not believe, although I occasionally enjoyed the ritual and pageantry.  But what bothered me most was Christianity’s requirement that one profess only one TRUE faith, only one TRUE God.  How could this be?

It seemed intuitive to me that all religions contained seeds of “the truth”, whatever that was - the truth about the meaning of life, the “right” way to live?  As an adolescent and young adult, I explored various religious traditions to try to find a good “fit” for me.  The culture of the ‘70s and early ‘80s in America, and in Europe where I resided for a while, encouraged seeking new experiences. Auto didactically, I ‘studied’ protestant fundamentalism (too rigid), orthodox Catholicism (too dogmatic), a hodgepodge of western-influenced Eastern practices made up of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Sufism (too everything!).  I tried West-African/Latin American -based practices like Voodoo and Santeria (empowering, but too magical and theistic).  I had heard of Mahayana Buddhism, but my experiences with Eastern religion made me believe they were all too focused on transcendence, on escaping the material body, asceticism, and strange practices like Tantra yoga and fruit diets.  In the best tradition of the ‘80s, I became a ‘material girl’!

The Annual event of Esala Perahara of the Tooth Relic Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka

For the next ten years or so of my life, I essentially gave up religion and pursued an advanced degree as a scientist along with a platform of social issues.  I became an apostle of the ‘religion’ of empiricism; I strove for material, not spiritual, well-being.  Religion seemed less and less viable; after all, its tenets were a matter of pure faith and could not be empirically tested.  Physical pleasures provided my sense of joy in life, along with righteous anger at social injustice.  Psychotherapy and secular humanism helped me be a better person.  Although I felt a sense of unease, an anxious malaise that I was missing something, that something was definitely not religion.  I felt propelled by the American pursuit of perfect happiness to continue my ‘march of progress’ toward a ‘golden millennium’, but I had no map.

I recount these occurrences not because I think they make my path unique, but for exactly the opposite reason.  I think, in my constant seeking,  I am prototype Westerner.  Tension exists between what Westerners are taught and what Buddhism teaches - we are told that perfect happiness is possible if we just work hard enough - Buddhism says all life is suffering.  We are taught that to pursue perfect happiness, we should strive for perfect comfort in materialism and to fulfill our sensate desires - Buddhism teaches that desire leads to more suffering.  Western materialism has a hollow core, leaving many of us unfulfilled and empty even after achieving materialistic comfort.  Materialism is just not enough; it is not holistic.

At this spiritual juncture, a good friend of mine proposed that we take up meditation classes as a “hobby”.  The City Paper listed a place on 16th Street - the Washington Ethical Society - where beginner classes were held.  Off we went, address in hand.  We promptly got lost.  After driving around for a while, we spotted a sign - “Buddhist Vihara” - in front of a modest, civilian house.  “Hey, I bet they teach meditation there!” my companion said.  We parked and rang the doorbell.  As we entered the hall, a saffron-robed, spare man of saintly and smiling appearance descended a red-carpeted stair.  “Welcome, friends”, he said, “I’ve been expecting you.”  My companion and I exchanged puzzled glances, then went to sit at the feet of this man to begin to learn about meditation and Buddhist philosophy.  The man was Professor Dhammavihari, and since that first visit, I knew Buddhism was right for me.  I will here try to describe those Buddhist principles I understand and try to practice in my life - in short, why I choose to practice Buddhism.

Esala Perahara

First, the Four Noble Truths, the foundations of Buddhism as I understand it, are not so much tenets of faith as demonstrable principles of perceptual science.  The Truths state that all life is suffering, that suffering is caused by craving - desire, that internal detachment from the world ends suffering, and that by following the way of the Buddha, internal detachment can be achieved.  I have seen in my own life that attaining the fruits of desire produces not comfort, but more desire.  Desire is an uncomfortable state, and ultimately an insatiable one.  For example, if I desire an ice cream cone, I may be driven by that desire until I eat one.  But after I eat it, I am not satisfied - the desire returns, and I want to eat another.  The satisfaction is momentary, occurring only while actually eating the cone, but the minute I’ve finished, the memory of the deliciousness of the ice cream takes hold again, and I want more.  And so on.  The more desires I have that I am able to materially fulfill, the more arise.  The constant is the uncomfortable state of desire.  Because I experience this truth, I do not have to “take it on faith” as one usually does with religion.  In fact, writings tell us that the Buddha was not born a Buddha but a human being, and therefore full of desire - the Buddha actually experienced these principles, they were not received epiphanies from God but instructions from a person who had practiced them with success.  Faith, perhaps, comes with believing that the way of the Buddha works to relieve suffering.  Meditation and practicing the removal of desire, for me, works even in small increments; the mental health benefits alone have improved my life.  As a scientific psychologist, I agree that a person controlled by external stimuli is basically reactive.  Developing control of self - placing a buffer between external stimulus and choosing one’s reaction - is a desirable goal in itself.

Which brings me to another appealing aspect of Buddhism - its lack of focus on theism.  Buddhism does not condemn the idea of deity, but sees it as peripheral at best.  While a Christian, I constantly struggled with my inability to truly believe in God or the creeds of faith.  Buddhism does not depend on prayer and supplication to a God who will ultimately “save” us from ourselves and our human inability to do right.  Buddhism states instead that each one of us is responsible for ourselves and our behavior.  “The wise fashion themselves into good people”, the Buddha says.  The Buddha himself was not a God incarnate, but a human being who found a way to end suffering, a way each of us can follow.  I can practice Buddhism without feeling like a hypocrite because I cannot reconcile or take on faith the idea of God.  And my experience of Buddhism is that wherever one is on the path is okay.  One doesn’t have to be perfect; just working towards betterment.  One never has to feel that one cannot go to church because one has sinned or fallen short - as long as one is genuine; after all, the only one who will suffer from not following the Way is oneself.  One never has to worry about appeasing an angry God.

Esala Perahara; Kandy,
Sri Lanka

As I was taught by Professor Dhammavihari, rather than focusing on appeasing God, one should simply practice the set of ethical principles laid forth in the eightfold path.  One should strive for right understanding, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.  In addition, one should observe five precepts:  not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, and not to intoxicate oneself.  I believe that if all people were to follow these suggestions, life on earth would be like life in heaven.  This path also makes Buddhism an ecologically relevant philosophy.  Our entire world is connected; the actions of each of us affect all others, including all living beings.  The web of life and the interdependence of ecosystems is a basic reality of biological science.  The way of the Buddha recognizes this interdependence and requires a respect for all life and an understanding that our behavior has an impact on our environment.  Global destruction of ecosystems and environments threatens us all.  Buddhism offers a way of life, which would enhance preservation of our world.

These are a few of the reasons why I practice Buddhism.  Its scientific and empirical (meaning based on experience) approach is appealing.  Even after thousands of years, its recommendations are fresh and relevant; perhaps even more so today than a thousand years ago.  As I said at the top of my essay, I fell upon Buddhism by accident - or did I?  After all, when we first came to the Vihara, Professor Dhammavihari descended the stairs saying he had been expecting us.  In my mundane way, I assumed he had been expecting two other young women with whom he had a previous appointment, who never made it that day.  Or perhaps something more mystical was afoot.  In the end, it really doesn’t matter - both interpretations can be simultaneously correct, because the path of Buddhism brought a meaningful spirituality to my life.