I’ve had people ask about how I came about studying Buddhism. The question makes sense; a French-speaking white male living on the Northern shore of New Brunswick wouldn’t necessarily have a great deal of exposure to eastern religions.
I guess it all kind of started in the mid to late 1980’s. Although I hadn’t become entrenched in the martial arts by this point, my religious beliefs would feed off of my martial arts and vice versa, in the years to come. I had already become an avid reader and would pick up any book or manuscript I could get my hands on and read it. My father, in an attempt to steer me away from my grandmother’s medical text books (he felt they were inappropriate for a kid) started trying to find “cool things” for me to read.
Sometime in 1987, my father found a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and provided the manuscript to me in plain text format on a 3.5 inch floppy disk (I realize how old that makes me sound, and you new age kids can Google “floppy disk” if you don’t understand). It was slow reading, especially since there was only one computer in the house and I had to wait for my father to be gone to work to get a turn.
Without getting into details, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is the western title given to one of the three main manuscripts in Buddhism. It basically describes the transitional period in which a person exists between the death of one life and the beginning of another. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist. It was intense and fascinating reading, and I don’t think that my father knew exactly what it was that he had given me. It started me on a path of self-study that I am still entranced with to this day.
To explain how Buddhism gained some roots within my own life, it’s important that I explain a little bit about my family’s religious beliefs. This is not to shine a negative light on anyone’s chosen faith, but my entire family on my mother’s side was intensely religious. In fact, most of my grandmother’s siblings had studied the seminary and most had become nuns. Since my mother had also gone to seminary school, the Catholic faith had deep roots on my mother’s side and I was made to attend church twice, sometimes more, a week. Although teaching your family’s beliefs to the next generation is important, I would come to believe that a traditional church service holds no interest for a young child and can in fact get quite boring. In recent years, some churches offer child programs that allow for the teaching of their faith in a forum where young children are distracted and enjoy the experience. This was not so, for me.
By the time I had reached my pre-teens, my mother gave me the choice as to whether I would attend church or not. And like most children who are given the choice, since I had been forced through it for most of my life, I chose to walk away from it.
By the time the very late 1980’s came along, my health had waned to the point where I was facing death (I’ve written about this in previous posts, if you want to check out that story). Once I began my martial arts training, I began to learn more about Buddhism, Taoism and Zen. One began to feed of the other and I began to actively seek out Buddhist texts and study in greater detail. The more I read, the more I came to feel that the Buddhist faith reflected much more of my personality than my family’s religious faiths (I pluralize that, because my father is actually not Catholic).
My Sensei was a big help, since certain Zen precepts are very dominant in karate. What I study is called Zen Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism that originated in China but built roots as a Japanese form of Buddhism focusing on meditation and intuition. Based on Mahayana Buddhism, it combines aspects of Zen and Taoism. Although there are obviously far too many details about it to draft in a blog post, the Buddhist faith has helped me through the decades by encouraging self-motivation, increased health, focus and concentration and acceptance of all other religious beliefs.
Although my studies were akin to a starving person in front of a buffet, most studies were done on my own. In October of 2001 I travelled to Japan with my Sensei, and had the opportunity to visit a number of Buddhist temples, including temples in Narita and Tokyo. I made friends with a number of the monks in Narita and was invited to stay and become a monk myself.
I was caught in a dilemma. Although their peaceful way of life and quiet study appealed to me, I didn’t know how survival would be possible, being a Type 1 Diabetic. The monks explained that they normally used monetary donations as a means to obtain medical supplies for monks who required them. The monastery would provide my insulin in exchange for joining them.
I could have stayed. A part of me wishes I had stayed. But I came to two realizations that night as I was trying to make my decision. The first thing I realized is that the world keeps on turning. Even if I hide within the walls of a monastery, how am I genuinely promoting peace if I’m hidden from the world? Would I be contributing in a way that would satisfy me and make me feel as though I’ve done my part? The answer was certainly no!
The second thing I realized is how embarrassing it would be to have my mother hop an international flight to drag me back to Canada by my ear! Being an only child, there was no way in hell she would have allowed me to join a monastery on the other side of the world!
But there you have it. I often wonder if my path would have been the same if my father hadn’t provided me with that first manuscript. Maybe so. But as much as I would like to say it all happened by accident, it likely wasn’t. As Jean de la Fontaine said, we most often find our destiny on the road we least thought to travel. ☯