In search of faith

[En español aquí.]

I've written before about yoga and meditation, and how they have helped me grow. But I've never written here about Buddhism and the impact it's had in my life. Religion is a tough topic, and it's not my intention to offend anyone. I just want to talk about my own search for faith, and how I find myself closer to Buddhism at this point in my life.

I grew up in a non-practicing Catholic family in a largely Catholic country. There were always Bibles laying around the house, and even one or two illustrated children's versions, which we picked up whenever we felt like it. My family never pressured us into reading these books, or going to church. We even skipped the church part of weddings sometimes. Still, when you grow up in a Catholic country, you can't help but pick up parts of the beliefs and practices.

When it was time to move into junior high school (in Mexico, elementary school is only 6 years; then we have 3 years secondary school and 3 years high school. Then comes college/university), my mom registered me in a Catholic school just because it happened to be the best in town. They did make us go once or twice a year to mass, and we had a Religion class throughout the six years, but in it we mostly learned about values, sexuality, religious history, and world religion. Only once did we get a teacher who tried to make us learn the Bible chapter and verse, but he didn't last long.

And yet, I don't consider myself a Catholic. Thanks to my education I know the religion pretty well, sometimes even better than some of my friends who go to mass every Sunday, but I also learned to be critical. No, I don't believe that religion is the opium of the masses or any such thing. And I know there are a lot of well-meaning people who actually try to live their lives according to Christian doctrines (just to clarify, Catholicisim is one aspect of Christianity). To them I am thankful because their example has shown me that the way religious authorities act does not necessarily reflect the everyday behavior of true believers.

But I've also seen a lot of hypocrisy. Many people who consider themselve good Christians or Catholics because they go to mass every Sunday fail to live up to the golden rule. They are judgemental, impatient, feel superior to others, discriminate against everyone they consider different. There's also the fact that however humble Christ actually was, the Catholic church is anything but. I mean, have you been to the Vatican? And don't even get me started on all the taboos about sexuality, learning, women...

So I became cynical of Catholicism, and sadly, of Christianity in general. I have to admit, though, that I don't have the same kind of close knowledge for any other Christian denomination, but I am willing to learn.

At the same time, through never being forced into a specific belief and thanks to my world religions class, I became curious about other belief systems. The first one I approached, and not necessarily because I was looking for faith, was Islam. Yes, it definitely had to do with how Muslims have been portrayed in the media since 9-11. So I got myself a copy of the Quran and started to read it. It was suprising, to say the least.

Now you have to keep in mind that I approached Islam in terms of a scholar, so to speak. While reading the Quran, I remembered the context in which this religion sprang, and that made me realize it was fairly advanced for its age, in the way that Jesus was advanced for his age. It's also very interesting, at least to me, that Muslims trace their religion to Isaac so that the three largest monotheistic religions of our time come from the same place. (If any Muslim reads me, please feel free to correct me.)

As to my own faith, like I said, I was mostly a cynic. Everyone claims to have the truth but I couldn't find it. So it was easier to say I was an agnostic, or even an atheist. I admit to rolling my eyes when friends spoke of going to church, and to getting upset when Islam is slandered. Ok, I still get upset when a religion is slandered for political purposes, and sadly Islam seems to be the media's favorite target.

And then there's science. Bear with me, I know it's not a belief system... except it is for all of us who haven't been inside the labs experimenting. We do believe that what scientists tell us is the truth and that it is fundamentally opposed to any religion. But why is that? Why can't there be something else that created everything we know? Why must it be either God or the Big Bang? So yeah, I was very confused.

Until a couple of years ago when I ran into an old friend (more like old flame, but that's another story.) He told be a little about Buddhism, even read bits from his book to me, and said that it might help to deal with a lot of my issues. I had already started to meditate a little every day and I also had some tarot cards, which I realize is a long way away from religion except for the fact that they were accurate and provided good pointers. So between meditation and realizing that there has to be something else that points us in the right direction if we believe in it, I took up his word and signed up for an Introduction to Buddhism course.

Let me tell you, what I learned that weekend made so much sense to me. It was explained in simple terms, but that was probably part of the appeal. Like explaining karma through Newton's laws; in the end I realized that yes, whatever you put out in the world (whether it's thoughts, words, or deeds) comes back to you eventually. Maybe in this life, maybe in another. That was something else: nothing can come from nothing, so your spirit (mind, soul, whatever you call it) has been around for a while. And tied with that is the belief that matter isn't created or destroyed, only transformed, so why can't you have past and future lives? To me, it made total sense.

That weekend was a revelation. Afterwards, I bought a couple of books, registered for the next course, and practiced meditation on my own. Readng the Tibetan Book of the Dead actually helped me during a very stressful week in which my grandfather was hospitalized and I stayed with him at the hospital.

Since then I've kept reading about Buddhism, took up yoga, and practiced meditation. I haven't been the most constant practitioner, to be completely honest. I haven't really read anything on Buddhism for the last year, don't know any of the rituals, and have a hard time with things like not killing pests (this was particularly difficult in my last job, when we had a colony of mice living in a cupboard and our Buddhist bosses wouldn't let us kill them.)

Even so, what little I do know has helped me understand the world and my role in it. It has made me become more aware of my actions. Indeed, of my thoughts and words. It's made me understand, in a way nothing had ever done before, that we are all in the same boat together: everyone is trying to find happiness using the tools and knowledge available to him or herself, so we should be full of compassion (aka love) towards our fellow creatures. It's really tough, but it does make you look a life from another perspective, one that is more patient and kind.

When I'm back in Mexico, one of my goals is to register for the on-going Buddhism course. I need to make time to strengthen not just my beliefs but my practice, because I know that doing so will help me achieve all my potential as a human being. And truly understanding this, I feel, brings me close to those true believers of all religions.

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