Pretending buddhism
November 25, 2006 3:26 PM   Subscribe

I used to be a devoted catholic. I quit the church years ago, but still miss the spirituality. Buddhism should fit me, but I feel like such a poser.

I read "the Mantram Handbook" by by Eknath Easwaran. He argues that it does not really matter whether you pray the rosary (which I used to do and love) or recite "Rama, Rama, Rama" or "Om mani padme hum". It all leads to the same. For people who do not feel comfortable with a personal God, he recommends the buddhist Om mani padme hum. So, I tried that for a couple of days. I can see how it would work, but I think I am too much of a cynic, because it does not feel right. I have difficulty explaining what exactly feels wrong, so I hope someone understands what I mean. It feels like I am stealing an aspect of another culture. As if I am just pretending. It is not just the language, I did not have this feeling when I prayed Latin or Greek prayers.

Is this something that will pass once I get used to it? Or should I stick with spirituality from my own culture (I am in Europe, in a secular country where Christianity is still the most popular religion)?
posted by davar to Religion & Philosophy (36 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Do what feels right. If putting a label on it doesn't feel right, don't do that, either.
posted by JekPorkins at 3:34 PM on November 25, 2006

Nothing in Buddhism's basic tenets requires you to say mantras or chant. Buddhism is a wide-ranging tradition ranging across many cultures and is evolving fast as it spreads into the west. Some groups may focus on silent meditation, for example. Others may be using translations of the original chants into English or another western language. It's worth exploring, and it's also very much worth investigating practice groups rather than sitting alone and working from a book, especially at first.
posted by zadcat at 3:42 PM on November 25, 2006

The Roman Catholic propaganda dissing Buddhism is perhaps illuminating. There seems to be some rivalry between Lamaistic (ie, Tibetan) Buddhism and Christianity over who came up with all the rosaries, liturgy and ritual practices first. My money is on the Nestorians, who borrowed it from the Zoroastrians.

Go with whatever feels best. All cultures borrow from each other.
posted by meehawl at 3:52 PM on November 25, 2006

If you don't believe it, but are doing it to get the feeling of spirituality, then it probably won't feel completely comfortable. Religion should be about searching for truth. As human beings, our feelings may change from day to day. Belief is about what we think is real even when we don't "feel it."

I'm guessing that you left the Catholic Church because you had some strong convictions. If I were you I'd be doing more searching; trying to realize what I actually believe.

Hope that helps.
posted by allthewhile at 3:53 PM on November 25, 2006

I went through a similar cycle - fell out of Lutheranism into a real Buddha-curious spell. I wasn't keen on memorizing a whole new set of prayers and dogmas, but I sure loved the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn.

All of his books are wonderful - Peace is Every Step changed my life, and in your situation, I would heartily recommend Living Buddha, Living Christ.

This is a holy man less concerned with ranking who is most holy than he is with changing all the world, one heart at a time. In most of his works, he strips the "beautiful mess" of religious practice away to better see the true spiritual core of the matter. You might not find your final answers in reading him. You also might find that it was never about final answers in the first place.
posted by EatTheWeak at 4:19 PM on November 25, 2006

It is important to realise that 'faith' in the Buddhist sense of the word is vastly different to the concept of faith in terms of Christianity. Buddhism differs from Christianity (particularly Catholicism) in that it is not a ritualistic, dogmatic faith.

I went through a very similar process, leaving catholicism and embracing Buddhism. Zadcat is right, chanting and mantras are not a requirement in Buddhist practice. In fact it is almost the least of their concerns. Buddha himself said that you have to approach his teachings in your own way.
Many people start by taking an academic approach, reading about it, exploring the different schools and ultimately finding a part in the religion that they find comfortable: whether it be a cursory interest, or a full-fledged embracement.

I would encourage you to continue to read, and begin to incorporate the Five Precepts into your life and be mindful of the Eightfold Path. You will notice that none of these tenets require you to chant. If you feel uncomfortable doing it, then stop, otherwise you will ultimately turn yourself off what I consider to be a beautiful way of life.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 4:35 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

When I was younger, I went to religion classes; and while I still don't know much about hinduism, the one thing that has stuck with me over the years is that hinduism is not a religion, it is a way of life. I think that Buddhism is also meant to be approached this way (probably much more so than hinduism, actually). So my suggestion is pretty much what JekPorkins said above: Don't worry about rituals, prayers, etc., just lead your life according to the principles of buddhism and do what makes you feel most comfortable.
posted by echo0720 at 4:47 PM on November 25, 2006

You could make up your own mantra? Then you're not a poser at all, you're being unique and original.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:53 PM on November 25, 2006

You can only feel like a poser if you worry about what others think. I suggest you stop doing that first.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:54 PM on November 25, 2006 [3 favorites]

Others have summed this up nicely above, but just do whatever feels right to you. If it's Buddhism, cool. If it's part Buddhism, part Catholicism, part Voodoo, that's good too.

Spirituality shouldn't be constrained to a specific religion. Spirituality is about finding your place in the universe and how that universe relates to you. As someone who has long been critical of religion, I find that one of it's primary faults lay in that it attempts to codify something that should be discovered through personal reflection.

If that personal reflection comes in the form of saying a rosary, or chanting, or playing Halo, so be it.

Just take what you need to discover your place and everything else will work itself out.
posted by quin at 4:56 PM on November 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

Maybe it's that "Om mani padme hum" has been associated in your mind with all the silly ways it's been used in Western popular culture. Maybe some other mantra would suit you better, or maybe you'd prefer to meditate in silence. Or, maybe something else.

But any way you go, the doubt that you're "just pretending" is one of the many obstacles your mind can come up with to make meditation seem difficult.
posted by sfenders at 4:56 PM on November 25, 2006

And on preview, what weapons-grade pandemonium said.
posted by quin at 4:57 PM on November 25, 2006

Thanks for the answers so far. I'll respond to some of your comments.

I think I may have worded my question not very clearly (it is hard!). My concern is not: "can I call myself a buddhist if I do not like chanting mantras". I could not care less about what to call myself or specific tricks I would have to perform to be part of a certain special group - or something. My question was meant more as Can an eastern religion/way of thinking ever feel completely natural to a person that has grown up in a completely different culture?

I do like the mantram idea. I do not have much time for meditation, spiritual reading, etc. because I have a young child. I thought the mantra would be perfect, because it is easy to repeat it (in my head) while doing housework etc. In fact, I started this newfound interest in spirituality the other way around, I guess, with the mantram book. I did not start with an interest in buddhism, I started with an interest in mantras. I now think I should read a bit more about buddhism (thanks TheOtherGuy, it had not occured to me that buddhism is a religion that people approach academically - this always seemed like a wrong way to approach religion to me), and maybe then see how the mantra feels.

Meehawl, thanks for the link to the "encyclopedia" that said: "Buddhism has accomplished but little for the uplifting of humanity in comparison with Christianity." Here I thought Wikipedia was bad on controversial articles...

Perhaps I should set aside my skepticism and try a local buddhist group. It seems like zen is becoming more popular here as well, but it all seems so new-agey. It all seems to be about me-me-me.

Thanks EatTheWeak. I have heard of Thich Nhat Hahn, but not about the specific book you mention, which sounds interesting indeed.

Davy: Of course I do not "need" to do anything spiritual, but I do miss something, that's why I asked the question.

Weapons-grade pandemonium: you are right on the money. I am working on that.
posted by davar at 5:15 PM on November 25, 2006

I can exactly relate to this feeling. Try to keep in mind that almost any spiritual path you could choose would be "stealing". Catholicism may feel geographically relevant to you, but Christ is not a European figure.

As for why the Greek and Latin prayers felt natural to you: well, you were still praying to the Catholic version of God, with whom you felt very familiar. "From your lips to God's ears," as the saying goes. In Buddhism you are not "praying" in the same way at all, and there is no one you are praying to. The words are for you, for your benefit. So after spending years considering that your spiritual words and prayers were traveling far beyond you, it does feel strange to find yourself saying these syllables and know that their desired effect is to resonate within your own consciousness instead.

After years of being trained to believe that certain actions/words yield certain results, it is disorienting to explore spiritual terrain in which what you say and how you say it matter less than who you are as you say it. Making up your own mantra may feel too much like pure invention to give you that feeling of tapping into something older or wiser than yourself, but you are going to have to break this-- that is your hang-up, not the universe's.

You feel no connection to the words. You don't need to in order for them to help you, but you want to. Most of this is a matter simple familiarity, doing it over time until it feels natural (just like you once did with Catholicism). In the meantime, why not simply use your Greek and Latin prayers? Just as they have been a stepladder to the point you're at now, they can perhaps bridge a linguistic gap for you. Alternate back and forth-- thre days of Greek, three days of "Om mani padme hum", three days of a made-up one. The point of this is to erode the significance of the words themselves and deliver yourself into a regular practice. Think about how you are reaching a point in your spirituality where your beliefs transcend your ability to articulate them in words: words are an approximation, a way to approach the gates of meaning that will only take you so far beyond them.

The buddhist teacher that has taught me the most spent a chunk of his adulthood in a Carmelite monastary; lots of people have made this leap. Try to find other people that you can talk about this openly with-- you shouldn't worry about rocking the boat-- in fact, any good buddhist teacher will welcome the challenge.
posted by hermitosis at 5:18 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

FWIW, years ago I was at a (semi) Catholic retreat where there was some discussion of this book, which tried to express Catholic thought in an Eastern manner. Perhaps it would give you more to think about...?
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:31 PM on November 25, 2006

I stopped practicing Catholicism, toyed with some other religions and approaches and, like you, gravitated toward mantras and buddhism. I also had the same sort of fish-out-of-water feel. I now attend an uprogrammed Quaker meeting about twice a month and find it a nice blend of the two faiths/practices. There is community and a sense of something larger than myself, something divine. But also, and importantly for me, there is tolerance (acceptance, peace, etc.) and right action. Those were two things I found seriously missing from my Catholic experiences.
posted by cocoagirl at 5:31 PM on November 25, 2006

Get your hands on as many recordings of Alan Watts as you can. He is fascinating, and I think you would resonate a lot to what he has to say (and how he says it).
posted by blahtsk at 5:58 PM on November 25, 2006

So davar, I should have asked "What precisely is it that you miss?"
posted by davy at 7:22 PM on November 25, 2006

What about anglican/eposcipal? It has the trappings and pomp of Catholicism, but is a bit more laid back and progressive.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:38 PM on November 25, 2006

Would something like the Jesus prayer be more accessible to you? This has meditative aspects and yet links to the symbols that you are already familiar with.

The whole prayer is "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" but you don't need to buy into all of the Catholic (or Protestant or Orthodox) dogma to use it. Who/what is Jesus to you, even just as a symbol? What is mercy? What is sin/imperfection? Perhaps there are versions of these ideas and stories that would be useful for you.
posted by heatherann at 8:12 PM on November 25, 2006

If possible, perhaps meet up with some Buddhist practitioners who may be able to "show you the ropes" so-to-speak. I found that after I was able to hear the teachings from someone, it made more sense to me and resonated more.
posted by perpetualstroll at 9:22 PM on November 25, 2006

Get your hands on as many recordings of Alan Watts as you can. He is fascinating, and I think you would resonate a lot to what he has to say (and how he says it).

Seconding this. You can download a number of Watts' lectures via the official podcast, they'll likely be more entertaining than reciting mantras. Although he's best known for engaging discussion of Zen, he didn't neglect the other major religions and was, for a time, an ordained Episcopalian minister. Labels were very much beside the point.

His recordings are still broadcast on a handful of radio stations.
posted by unmake at 9:31 PM on November 25, 2006

Although you're interested in Buddhism, you might check out the work of Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk who combined Hinduism and Catholicism in his religious practice. His work may give you some insight about how religious traditions can be combined.
posted by jayder at 9:32 PM on November 25, 2006

I'd like to mention (as others above have alluded to) that Catholicism is far richer and deeper than most people realize, with a long tradition of mysticism and meditation. This religion has been around for two thousand years, after all, and has produced people like St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton, among others. Their writings are fascinating descriptions of their spiritual journeys and their attemps to transcend this earthly existence. I should also point out that many of these people came in conflict with the power structure of the Church.

Catholicism is more than just the (thankfully obsolete) Baltimore Catechism, the criminally stupid ideas about birth control, the Spanish Inquisition, and the long, boring sermons on Sunday. Many of its less well-known practices (praying the Rosary, perfoming the Office of the Hours, fasting, and so on) can provide a great deal of spiritual growth. Even though I often doubt some of the most basic tenets of Catholicism, I still gain much satisfaction from these old rituals.

Of course, that's also because I was brought up Catholic, so it ties into my memories of family and childhood. Stupid Catholic imprinting! (mutter mutter)
posted by math at 10:28 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Here's an opposing view to my own post. Keep in mind that we all come from families that converted to a particular religion. Muslims are all descended from converts. There were no Buddhists before Buddha came along. The first Catholics were converted Jews. Even the Jews were converted (by Abraham) from some polytheistic Chaldean religion back around 1300 B.C.

So, put aside any feelings you have about "feeling like such a poser" for trying on an Eastern religion. Be grateful that you are not forced to convert by an invading army or by some overbearing patriarch with a touch of madness. Keep in mind, too, that the river of interest runs both ways, and that many Easterners have been and continue to be interested in Christianity (perhaps due to the long history of missionary work), and that the most populous Muslim country in the world is the South Pacific island nation of Indonesia, rather far away from the hot desert sands of the Middle East. Explore, study, read, and feel free to choose.
posted by math at 10:52 PM on November 25, 2006

sfenders said But any way you go, the doubt that you're "just pretending" is one of the many obstacles your mind can come up with to make meditation seem difficult.

Listen to that. Meditation is all about paying attention to your own resistance. The doubts are part of the process. Watch the doubts. Get really curious about them. Keep paying attention. See what happens.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:46 PM on November 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

Ok, I said my piece above, yet I feel compelled to comment again:

TheOtherGuy said great things. Things that you should honestly listen to if you are serious about working towards being a Buddhist.

That said, I have to take issue with this: Would something like the Jesus prayer be more accessible to you? I don't think that heatherann was proselytizing, but her tone is suggesting that Jesus is your answer, and I don't think that is what you are looking for.

Don't get me wrong, I assume Jesus existed. And I have little doubt that he was a rock star in his day. But then again, so was Elvis. And that's my point. I am a lost Catholic, but I can still love the cathedrals that are built in the name of a god I don't serve. The same way I can belive that a teacher named Jesus tried to tell us to be nice to one another.

The same way I can say that a guy named Elvis taught me rock and roll.

My point is that if you follow dogma, you will eventually find yourself questioning the writ.

Most religions build in a sort of DCMA that instantly will refute this (and in some, make you a spontaneous heretic) And to my mind, that is the problem. I don't favor religion. I think it's a crutch. But I am willing to acknowledge that certain religions are better pathways to spirituality than others.

In that respect, I like Buddhism. It always seemed to be a fast track to personal growth. And by that I mean that I've found that other religions make your growing as a person a side effect to the larger goal of coming to grips with your god. Buddhism has typically seemed to me [as an outsider] as a way to embrace one's self. Without the artifices and mumbojumbo of more 'organized' religions.

What I'm saying is that I'm a happy hard core atheist, that if forced to chose a religion, would probably move into Buddhism. If for no other reason, than it seems to consider itself a philosophy more than a dogma.

And I like that.
posted by quin at 12:36 AM on November 26, 2006

For typographic reasons, I'm going to disagree with math, but for salient argumentative points, I think that he/ she should also be considered as reasonable and worth note.
posted by quin at 12:44 AM on November 26, 2006

Sorry, math should have been a link.
posted by quin at 12:48 AM on November 26, 2006

Thanks, quin, for your kind words. I've enjoyed reading your thoughtful and carefully written commentary in this thread. I'm curious, though, what my typographical error was in my post... was my metaphor about "the river of interest flowing both ways" a bit too tortured, or did I choose the wrong spelling of "Chaldean"? Help me out here, o mighty quin!
posted by math at 9:12 AM on November 26, 2006

[math, that was the one, though 'typographic' was probably a bad word choice. [I blame alcohol] There was just something about the metering of the first paragraph, followed by that metaphor that felt off to me. Rereading it in the cold light of day reveals nothing technically wrong, and thus, I withdraw my disagreement and wholeheartedly endorse your points.]
posted by quin at 9:53 AM on November 26, 2006

[Thanks for the reply, quin. I was a bit unhappy with my choice of words as well, but due to the late hour I was unable to come up with a better way to phrase things. I often find that my most eloquent thoughts suffer terribly in the transition to the written word, and somehow end up DOA on the page. Ah well. Good thing I'm not a professional writer. Good thing, as well, that the Geneva Convention doesn't apply to tortured metaphors.]
posted by math at 11:39 AM on November 26, 2006

Thank you all very much for your thoughtful answers. I know I did not word my question very well, but your answers are really helpful. I will check out the authors you mentioned and I will set aside my skepticism and try to find honest teachers (I was put off by the commercialism of the few buddhist centers I found. I am used to catholic spirituality and hospitality. I used to spend lots of times in monasteries and churches and money was always voluntary. People were honestly glad I came there to pray. The buddhists just say: "oh, you're a newbie? just follow our introduction course and pay a hundred euro's please".) You have given me lots to think about.

Hermitosis: wow, you do seem to understand exactly what I mean and I think you are right about why it feels wrong at the moment. Thanks.
posted by davar at 3:24 PM on November 26, 2006

That said, I have to take issue with this: Would something like the Jesus prayer be more accessible to you? I don't think that heatherann was proselytizing, but her tone is suggesting that Jesus is your answer, and I don't think that is what you are looking for.

Nope, atheist here, which is why I specifically said that you don't need the dogma in order to use this. It's just the most meditative thing I know of that's linked to the Christian symbols, which might make the OP feel like less of a poser. That plus I know about the Jesus prayer because of JD Salinger's book Franny & Zooey, which links a lot of Christian and Buddhist ideas.
posted by heatherann at 4:04 PM on November 26, 2006

I'm a bit late but had to make sure this fellow got mentioned. A great bridge from Catholicism to Buddhism is Thomas Merton (a Trappist monk). Towards the end of his life he wrote more and more about the similarities of the two. A few titles of his to get you started:

Seeds of Contemplation
Zen and the Birds of Appetite
Mystics and Zen Masters

(And though it only covers his life up to becoming a monk, his autobiography, "Seven Storey Mountain," is one of the best documentations of a spiritual seeker ever written.)
posted by iurodivii at 9:45 AM on November 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Can an eastern religion/way of thinking ever feel completely natural to a person that has grown up in a completely different culture?

I can offer two and a half experiences with religious culture-crossing. This is me: Raised a Latter-day Saint, still a Latter-day Saint, and recently I've come to know that I will always, always be a Latter-day Saint. And at the same time, without discord, I have also recognized that I am, in deep and essential ways, a Taoist. Philosophically, not culturally—in particular, I feel no affinity for ancestor-worship. But the part that's actually about the Tao? Resonates with my experience very naturally indeed.

I get a similar recognition with the core parts of Buddhism; I do not agree with all that the Buddhists have to say about cosmology and the destiny of the soul, but the experiential approach and especially the Eightfold Path ring a lot of bells.

(That's one and a half experiences, because the overlap between 'my' parts of Buddhism and 'my' parts of Taoism is significant. Some credit where credit is due for these experiences: Mindfulness in Plain English, by Henepola Gunararatana, and materials I found near it, via the Blue; Tao: The Watercourse Way, by Alan Watts; Bonds that Make Us Free, by C. Terry Warner; Jesus the Christ, by James E. Talmage.)

The other experience does not involve quite so large a geographic gap, but still ... as a missionary in western Ukraine, I once had a conversation about prayer with a couple of Uniate Catholics. They asked if we prayed the Our Father; I explained that we look on it as a model of attitudes to prayer and concerns in prayer, but not as a set piece to be recited. They asked if I knew it anyway, and I replied, 'Only in English.' (I have since memorized it in Church Slavonic.) Now, I think it was as much out of linguistic curiosity as spiritual inclination, but they asked if I'd say it for them. I allowed I could do that, which is when a curious thing happened. Notwithstanding the rather negative attitude of my faith toward verbatim repetition in personal prayers, I prayed the Our Father—and it was a prayer indeed, every phrase of it bringing forth earnest yearnings from the Spirit through my heart and into the Spirit again. (Or maybe from the Tao...) My colleague recognized it too, and added his reverent 'Amen'.

And then, after a few seconds, the Catholic man picked up the conversation again, with 'Nope, didn't recognize a word,' and we went from there. But I felt a spiritual power in that Our Father as honest and familiar as in any extemporaneous prayer I've said; and if I could feel natural in that, I'm not about to disallow your feeling at home in an 'eastern' worldview. And Kipling will just have to get hip.
posted by eritain at 2:05 AM on December 14, 2006

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