For last week’s podcast, Catherine and I talked about how we both started out in Buddhism.
What I want to emphasize is that while we might want sit on our hands and wait idly for the perfect conditions to appear before we dip our toes into Buddhism, it would mean missing out on the many opportunities that we already have. For us to have already been introduced to Buddhism, to develop a genuine curiosity towards the teachings, and to have gone the step to learn more by searching it on the internet (I assume that’s how you found this website)—this is evidence that we have already have the necessary conditions to learn and practice Buddhism.
One dilemma we might face is having too many options. With so many books, centers, retreats, and methods available to us, it’s often hard to know where to start or what to start with. In a sense, this is a form of procrastination—we might browse through dozens of options around us and come up with reasons on why we don’t want to actually commit, or why we’re still looking for something better-suited to us. But the time spent window shopping for Buddhism is time that could have otherwise been spent learning and practicing.
I like to think of it as trying to find a new book in a library. There are so many genres (schools of Buddhism) out there, and when I’m trying to find a book (temple/center), I keep that in mind as I browse through the shelves—mostly looking through the genres that I’m interested in. I’ll probably find what I’m looking for in the genres that I like, but sometimes a completely unfamiliar book happens to catch my eye, or a friend recommends it to me and I realize that there’s a whole other world that I never knew existed.
But, if I spend hours and hours trying to decide which book to pick up, that’s hours that I could have spent reading already. It would have been much quicker and more effective to check it out and dive right in. The decision might be easy if we notice that we have a preference, but there are times when the decision isn’t in our control.
For example, sometimes I see a book I’m interested in on the catalog, but it’s not available at my branch—I could wait a while until the library orders it, or I can read something in the meantime and come back for it later. Buddhism is the same way—we might be drawn to a specific group or teacher, but if that particular center or teacher isn’t near us or available to us right now, the best thing to do is to find another suitable group while waiting for an opportunity to arise (or rather, while we stay alert for that opportunity).
No matter how small of a start, the best thing to do is to start somewhere, and to start sooner rather than later. There’s the quote that goes, “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” If we never start our journey, we’ll never make any progress at all.
In Buddhism, there’s a verse that I find fitting in spurring myself onward.
The human body is hard to obtain, Yet I have obtained it today;
The Dharma is difficult to encounter, Yet I have encountered it today.
If this body is not used to cultivate in this life,
Till which lifetime would this body be delivered?
In the Buddhist understanding of life, it’s incredibly rare to be born as a human—as someone who has the capacity to learn and practice Buddhism. Yet here we are. And of those who are human, it’s unfathomably rare for someone to have the intention to delve into Buddhism. I believe I mentioned this in the podcast episode, but although often considered a major religion, Buddhists only make up 7% of the world’s population according to the CIA’s World Factbook. If we don’t take this chance while we have it now, who knows when it will come up again?
Past and future lives aside, just think about our lifespans and the many opportunities that come and go every single day. All of the choices that we’ve had to make opened some doors, but closed others. At this point, we’re all standing right in front of the Dharma Door of Buddhism. We’re even curious enough to open it and take a peek inside.
To me, it’s always felt like exploring a vast library (which, to be honest, I feel like the number of volumes in the Buddhist collection make it a gigantic library indeed). Since opening the door and taking my first few steps in, I’ve learned so much from the books in the library of Buddhism—how to find my own balance, how to help others, and how to understand the world. But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve learned even more from testing these guides in my own life, by practicing compassion and mindfulness. The more I practice, the more I’ve come to cherish Buddhism, and the more I’m motivated to practice.
So in the end, what should we start with? We should start with what we have.
Here’s a story that I want to end on. There’s a Buddhist priest I know who was born and raised in the midwest, which was a true Dharma desert at the time. Honestly, I find it incredible that he was able to find the Dharma in a place where literally no temples existed, and likely no Buddhists existed either. This was also a time before the internet, so blogs like this were out of the question too. But with his wholesome conditions, he found Buddhism at a young age and was enamored by the teachings—especially the teachings of a highly elusive school of Japanese Buddhism: Shingon.
Through reading the books that were available at the library, he continued learning as much as possible until he went to college and found a Buddhist center nearby. Taking advantage of his new conditions, he studied Mandarin Chinese and attended sessions at the local temple. Fast forward a few years to when the internet started to become popular, and he found a Shingon temple in California. After graduating from college, he moved to the West Coast and started to help out at the newly-found temple, which, after years of study and practice, was what he had been looking for all along. He is now a fully-ordained Shingon Buddhist priest, and I had the opportunity to meet and learn from him when I lived in Portland.
I found his story especially inspiring because it’s very relevant—many of us live in places where Buddhist temples are scarce or nonexistent, so we might not have the means to learn the particular school of Buddhism that we’re interested in. But that doesn’t mean we should wait idly—we have access to some resources, and those are precisely the resources that we should start with. In time, other opportunities will appear, but in the meanwhile, we need to start somewhere.
And what’s better than starting right here, right now?