Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Chöling in Poolesville, MD
༄ In 2006, my aunt and uncle, who served in Mongolia with the US Diplomatic Service, took our family to a Buddhist temple—which would eventually become my Buddhist temple—for a Mongolian autumn festival. My parents were less than impressed, but I found the experience life-changing. I had been frolicking around the temple, thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere, when I entered the prayer room and saw other people there sitting in the prayer room meditating in front of the altar to Padmasambhava (who, I later learned, had brought Buddhism to Tibet). I left the room and went to the last place I remembered seeing someone sitting like them: the little gift shop, where I saw statues of the Buddha in meditation postures known as “calling the World to witness” and the “lotus” posture. I immediately ran back (ran is perhaps accurate since I was 11 years old) when I sat down and crossed my legs and joined my hands in the lotus posture.
An amazing, miraculous calm came over me. Gone were the senses of anger and sadness from loneliness after my move to Maryland, and instead I breathed in fragrant air that was the most uplifting and rejuvenating I had ever experienced. My mind—normally keeping itself busy with youthful thoughts—was almost immediately decluttered.
A few minutes later, my mother came in the prayer room to tell me that our family was leaving. Someone stopped her on the way out and asked her if I had ever meditated before, and she said no—that our family was just visiting for the Mongolian autumn festival. The woman remarked that they had never seen something like it before, where a kid entered the prayer room with no background in Buddhism and in meditation and spontaneously started to meditate.
Today, though I tend not to use this term, I consider the experience nothing short of a miracle.
༄ What followed was a long journey of self-discovery and religious exploration. I figured that I was meant to be a Buddhist, and this intuition was reinforced when I learned about Buddhist philosophy. The same reason why I was called to be a Socialist—suffering and uplift of disadvantaged peoples—was reaffirmed by the basic tenets of Buddhism: (1) we suffer, (2) suffering is rooted in desire, (3) we can remove suffering by removing desire, and (4) we can remove desire by essentially following a thoughtful and ethical life. I was interested by Buddhism’s notion of compassion and the dedication which bodhisattvas show in helping other suffering sentient beings traverse the ocean of Samsara.
But I wanted to be sure, and not to be mistaken as choosing a new faith because it was novel—as was the case when people told me they thought my Socialist beliefs were “just a phase.” I spent the next three years exploring various religions and learning more about a variety of religious beliefs. I learned more about the tenets of Judaism and Islam, visited a mosque, and even revisited Christianity. In fact, I dabbled in so many religions that my few friends at the time thought I was fickle and was converting to a different religion every month. But I was not rash. I acted in a way uncharacteristic of someone who was less than thirteen years old:
I acted with restraint.
༄ It was the early morning of 12 April 2009. I was only 13 years old, but it was only three more days until my 14th birthday. I had spent the night before sitting in my bed, thinking about my religious faith, the Buddhist dharma, and how exactly does one formally converts to a different religion. I wanted to convert right then and there, but I decided I would wait until the morning when I woke up to see how I felt and what I would decide.
That morning, only my mother was awake. That morning, she sat and listened to me awkwardly explain how I wanted to become a Buddhist and to learn more about the religion. She was caring and told me, for example, how you don’t need to formally convert to being a Buddhist. You just are one. After I decided to covert, she would be the only one who would take me to my temple as often as she was willing to and let me attend youth classes. These classes were meant to culminate in your taking of bodhisattva and refuge vows, meaning you become a formal member of the tradition and receive a spiritual teacher—it’s a lot like being confirmed.
I only recently took refuge vows and received a new name, Tseten Dorjé, “Firm-” or “Stable-Life Vajra.” A vajra, “lightningbolt” and “diamond” in Sanskrit, means an instantaneous enlightenment. It is a very auspicious name, and it is my little silent prayer to become a bodhisattva.
༄ After I openly converted, which is to me a lot like coming out, quite a few people gave me their opinions and told me what they thought. I suppose one can expect some backlash, but I was not expecting quite as much when I decided to convert. I thought others would see how sincerely and delicately I had treated the matter, and still do. What follow are a few brief and real stories about responses I received, in no particular order.
My grandmother visited our family soon after, and I recall walking with her and my father around the national arboretum in Washington D.C., ironically, looking at the bonsai collection. I had flagrantly talked about converting, and she tried to tell me that Buddhism was not a good religion. She told me that “one day” I would find Christ and God again and that I would come back to church. My father sat silently and was pleased.
I once explained to a few other students in my science lab, in high school, that I was a Buddhist. Neither really understood what that meant, but one told me that I was going to hell and that I should accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour and another told me I was possessed by demons.
On another occasion, I told my two Baptist best friends from my preteen days that I was a Buddhist. Thankfully, they were smarter and more aware about Buddhism than the two girls in my science lab—but they still told me I worshipped a rock, a statue, and not the living god.
On one occasion, in a French class, one person had assumed that I was Buddhist because it was novel and interesting, not because I had learned about the dharma and what it says about suffering—and had accepted it as valid.
I was once told by a relative that I should “go to Tibet and eat only saffron rice in a cave” if I did not like it here in the US and if I did not like being a Christian. Apart from just being racist, it is also impractical. Given, you know, how Tibet is occupied.
I have been called an idolater. And more than once! A Christian woman from Phoenix, AZ, has especially harassed me for several years about being a Buddhist.
During the Christmas season one year in high school, two religious boys in my year decided to give Christmas cards to everyone in our grade. The cards wished everyone a “Merry Christmas” and, for the ones whom they knew were not Christians, an aspiration. They hoped that we would “accept Jesus into [our hearts].”
One Christmas, after I graduated from high school and was an adult, someone opined openly to a table of family and his academic colleagues that there was no “hope” in any other religion except Christianity. Now, it was an interesting occasion, considering our guests on this occasion were all non-Christian: several Muslims, a Jew, and a Buddhist. No one wanted to disagree with their host, but I was thoroughly disgusted—and he said this looking at me.
Most recently, for Christmas, I received two books from a rather zealous relative, trying to entice me back to Christianity. One was a more popular book on Christianity, while another was touted as a apologist’s book to “prove” Christianity. I read neither and threw them away.
These are only a few such typical examples. There are, of course, the few rare harassers and missionaries, who scream—as has happened to me—at you to tell you that you are going to hell and that you are satanic and demonic.
No, we do not worship a statue. No, we do not all sit on a mat and eat only rice. (an actual very racist opinion I have received from a relative) No, we are not the same as Hindus. But thank you for praying for me.
I will pray that you find peace and overcome the causes of your anger and ignorance.
Altar to Terton Migyur Dorjé at KPC
༄ Christian holidays tend to frustrate me. I am still not committed to the idea of going home for them. On one hand, I love the glee and joy associated with them. I love the lights, the cookies, and the warmth, and so on. But, with both missionaries and the increasingly politicisation of Christian holidays, with the so-called “War on Christmas,” I have learned to dislike the whole lot. They are not my holidays.
For one, everyone assumes you are a Christian unless they know better (and they often don’t), and, when I out myself as a Buddhist to them, many seem repulsed or taken aback. I wish people would stick with the generic “happy holidays,” since then I won’t have to clarify and be the recipient of someone’s stunned, prejudiced gasp. It keeps us all from very awkward social situations, I think you would agree.
Second, the “War on Christmas” is a melodramatic fantasy. People saying “Happy Holidays,” as opposed to “Merry Christmas,” is polite, inclusive, and appropriately sensitive—and, frankly, less likely to make you into an ass when you learn the other person isn’t Christian. But, for me, it is especially pernicious as a Buddhist who cannot always celebrate their own holidays.
Case in point. I once took a day off from high school to celebrate the Tibetan New Year, Lösar, the most important Tibetan holiday. When I explained I took it off for a religious holiday, I was told I needed to say which one and that Lösar was not an appropriate, officially-classified holiday. My absence was unexcused.
I envy Christians for thinking that their holidays are under fire, when their holidays form some of the most important cultural holidays in the country. I can only imagine in the future trying to take of from work and class for holidays none of them will have heard of, like Lhabab Düchen, Lösar, Chökhor Düchen, or Saga Dawa—let alone to wait to have to explain to someone who might come at me with some sort of ignorant comment. (“Oh, like Chinese New Year?” No…) I imagine experiences like the one I had in high school will likely reoccur, and I will have to explain that, yes, the “Festival of the Descent from Indra’s Heaven” is a real holiday, as is the holiday commemorating “the time the Buddha first turned the wheel of the dharma.”
In comparison, I recently experienced for the first time a Buddhist holiday with my sangha, the same day I took refuge vows and received my new name. It was for Chökhor Düchen, the holiday which celebrates the first time the Buddha lectured on the dharma, and I had only received word of the schedule the day before. I immediately took off work and, the next morning, woke up early for the two-hour journey to my temple and back. The experience was unrivalled and awesome. From 10am to 8pm, I was praying and doing activities for my sangha. I was surrounded by kind and uplifting people, who could teach me about the dharma and who would understand my Buddhist humour! I met new kind people, and remet some friends from many years ago. Several anis (nuns) lit up when they saw me, stopped their practice, and came up and hugged me and asked how I was doing. Others recognised me from social media, and many others thanked me for my avid posting and appreciated my perspective on current events when I share it. I was surrounded by a loving community which many people take for granted—but one which, in the past four years, I have only experienced three times, and not for lack of wanting to visit. Two of them were in the past two months. If I could, I would visit every weekend, but I am not able to make an 80-mile journey without a car.
Even in the past two trips, however, I learned and achieved much. In addition to taking refuge, a big step for such a novice lay practitioner, I learned about ngöndro, a course of study and practice of the dharma, and learned about from a trained lama (teacher) about the dharma and how to practice it. This is just evidence of age-old wisdom in Buddhism: that you really do need a teacher.
Suffice to say, my association with holidays is interesting and frustrating thanks largely to others’ prejudices, assumptions, and
༄ The culmination of witnessing others’ aggression, ignorance, and prejudices, as well as having to frequently defend my faith has left a heavy toll on me, I feel. Today, many people around me are surprisingly unaware I am a Buddhist, even though it is such a major part of who I am. And this is not because I am not a practising Buddhist, but rather because I hide my faith in public. When others are talking about their churches and their events, I have not felt comfortable discussing my own. I live in a society where I am expected to learn about these others’ religion, but few take their time to learn about mine, apart from the time they tell me about how “peaceful” it is. Have you heard of dukkha? The Four Noble Truths? The Heart Sutra? I live in a society where apologists claim they can “disprove” my religion and can viscerally attack me personally, claim I have a mental disorder, and threaten me. All this and more for witnessing my faith.
I know I am not alone, either. I have heard similar stories and frustrations from many others in my sangha. I have heard others express their frustration, their antipathy, about their own experiences with this latent form of Christian supremacy, and I have heard others allude to their uneasiness about being Buddhist in public. Many of the majority have pushed back against me when I have couched our society as “Christian supremacist” and have lambasted missionary and evangelism. They say “They mean well,” or they tell me that “If you had such good news, would you not want to share it with others?”
That answer is no, and they might mean well but that does not absolve them from their harmful and oppressive deeds and behaviour. Assuming that anyone is unaware of Christianity in the US is absurd, and evangelical missionaries strip individuals of our their own agency when they try to convert them. They have disrespected me and my intelligence, claimed there is something wrong with me, or even have screamed in my face and harassed me. I did not unknowingly become a Buddhist any more than they unknowingly were born and raised in their Christian religion. We both were aware of what we were doing according to our beliefs, but they have decided to tell me and try to make me change my mind. How rude.
In Buddhism, we do not believe that our religion is the “only true” one. We believe that others follow their religions for perfectly valid reasons, and we hope that their beliefs bring them peace and an end to suffering. My religion does not tell me that I need to convince you that your religion is false. My religion tells me that is ignorance, driven by my own egotistical notions about my religion, which will only create suffering. My religion tells me that your religion makes you happy and fulfilled, and there is nothing wrong with that. Mine does that, too.
With the recent election, I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot sit by idly. President Trump’s commitment to making sure everyone can say “Merry Christmas” again politicises Christmas and religion even more, exacerbating already clear religious divisions, and it worries me that the sort of personal attacks I received as a kid will happen more frequently and, worse, to others. It has encouraged me to stand up even more fervently now for my religious faith, to make clear to others that I am a Buddhist, and to practice my religion even at times when it is conspicuous to others, where before I have kept myself in the closet. I am encouraged not to “fight” some sort of religious war, as the “War on Christmas” is purported to be, but I am encouraged to represent compassion and peace I know of as a Buddhist and to advocate for awareness of my religion and for inter-religious work and dialogue.
All suffering comes from wanting your own happiness.
Complete awakening arises from the intention to help others.
So, exchange completely your happiness
For the suffering of others — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Even if you have done nothing wrong at all
And someone still tries to take your head off,
Spurred by compassion,
Take all his or her evil into you — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Even if someone broadcasts to the whole universe
Slanderous and ugly rumors about you,
In return, with an open and caring heart,
Praise his or her abilities — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Even if someone humiliates you and denounces you
In front of a crowd of people,
Think of this person as your teacher
And humbly honor him — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
— 37 Practices of a Bodhisattvas by Togmé Zangpo (1297-1371)
By this effort, may all sentient beings be free of suffering. May their minds be filled with the nectar of virtue. In this way, may all causes resulting in suffering be extinguished, and only the light of compassion shine throughout all realms.
— Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo
OM MANI PADME HUNG