One of the most commonly encountered situations in the western Buddhist community is the questions which arise within one’s own family. This is particularly true for those of us who have come into Buddhism as adults and without the support or participation of our families. I think it is important to explore the options that we have to present our case without appearing defensive or to come off as missionary.
As we know, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has many times iterated that Buddhism cannot be for everyone any more that any other religion is suited to all. In addition, in the absence of dogma, Buddhism expressly forbids the active recruitment of converts. In fact, if we follow the precepts correctly, we are more than aware of the futility of such an attempt since, without doubt, if one needs convincing in the righteousness of the Buddhist path, then one has misunderstood the point. The Buddhist path is one of discovery and self-awareness. This cannot be achieved from external pressure but rather can only be a direct result of internal realization and investigation.
Those of us who have been raised in the standard Christian environment are likely to encounter one or more of several predictable reactions from our loved ones. It may be interesting to see how many of these are familiar to your own situation.
I was raised in a relatively common Roman Catholic home. That is to say that all the children attended parochial schools as long as it was economically viable to do so. In our family’s case this meant that we entered the public school system after the completion of primary catholic education. The first eight years of our schooling was dominated by priests, brothers and nuns; the latter had the greatest influence. Of course, religious instruction played a significant role in the curriculum as well. We were marched en masse to church services on all days of the religious calendar and every Sunday our parents delivered us to the doorway of the local church to attend mass. Whether the instructions resulted in a deeper faith is questionable but we were left with the inalienable belief that ours was the only valid religion and those who did not ascribe to it were inevitably destined for an eternity of suffering in hell! As we matured and were eventually left to make up our own minds about our individual beliefs, the attendance to church services dwindled seriously, nonetheless other points of view were always to be regarded with suspicion or even contempt. To this day, the prevalent judeo-christian-islam reaction to those of the Jehovah Witness, Scientology or Mormon faiths is one of distrust, disgust and bewilderment. This may or may not be the officially prescribed stand but it is astounding how many clerics share those views. There is no tolerance for “break-away” sects. It is interesting to note that the one dogma shared by all these religions (including those making judgement) is the belief that theirs is the only ‘true’ faith and the only valid course to paradise. Of course, we should all be aware that charlatans in the guise of spiritual guides and prophets exist in the world and we should exercise caution and wisdom in sorting these out.
And then there is Buddhism!
Most westerners have little if any understanding of the foundations of Buddhist thought, let alone the various religious practices which exist within it. And, as I have discovered, the tiny bits of information some people have acquired on the subject is either false, distorted or over-simplified. In addition, if questions are posed they are inevitably phrased to elicit a yes or no response. You are most likely to be asked: “Do you believe in God/Jesus Christ/paradise/hell/the soul/the resurrection/etc. ?” You are not likely to be engaged in a discussion or debate on ‘The Three Jewels’, the nature of mind, karma, re-birth, samsara, compassion, loving kindness, equanimity, nirvana or any other subjects which might provoke thought (at least not by anyone who is not encouraged by drink – it is important to NOT engage in discussion under those circumstances). In essence, no one is interested in your beliefs but rather on your stand vis-à-vis ‘their’ beliefs.
So the question remains: How do I answer questions posed by my family?
I have found that the easiest way to answer questions without antagonizing, alienating or lying to my loved ones is to accede to the fact that I do not reject their religious beliefs nor do I ascribe to them. I appreciate whatever form of spirituality they may have and I believe that it may very well lead to an enlightened state. I tell them that the important thing about my religion is the way we live our lives and the care we show towards others. I end by telling them that I think that sounds a lot like theirs…doesn’t it?