I became a Buddhist at 21. I grew up in a nominally "Buddhist" family. I put the word "Buddhist" in quotes because for the past many generations, Buddhism had decayed in much of my culture. There was a revival in the past 10 yrs or so, but before that, "Buddhism" in Singapore & most of the Chinese civilization is little more than idol worshipping, superstitions, elaborate rites and all. Put it this way, my parents were "Buddhists" all their lives and they had little idea who the Buddha was (!) and absolutely no idea what the Four Noble Truth is about, much less anything else about Buddhism.
This was the environment I grew up in. I was a very inquisitive child. Always searching, always asking, never taken an answer just because somebody said so (this, of course, landed me in a lot of trouble. In this culture, the nail that pops up gets hammered down). During my early teens, I started searching for the meaning of life. I got interested in religion and philosophy. Christianity is an attractive religion here in Singapore, well organized, extremely rich, lots of rich & educated people, lots of pretty girls. But it didn't satisfy any of my questions. So despite all the nice girls, it wasn't a religion I could force myself to accept. Buddhism and Taoism were so decayed they weren't much of an option as well. The "Dharma" I was taught were mainly superstitions and escapism. I thought that there had to be more to life than running away from our problems. So I continued searching.
I read a lot. Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Science, Philosophy. I read and read. Nothing gained. "Buddhism" is the same old escapism, "Taoism" is the same old superstition, Christianty still gives no answer, Science & Philosophy were fun, but they didn't answer my questions.
The turning point came when I was 21. It was a low point in my life. I was once again invited to Church. This time, it was one of those Charismatic Pentecostal churches. Nice music, powerful delivery of sermons, and best of all, lots of singing and crying. I saw it for myself how it worked. Every week, these people come here to relief themselves, to "flush" their pain. It was powerful. I liked it. Never mind if there are no answers here. Here's a place I can get to cry every week and relief all my pains. Anyway, there were pretty girls there.
The week after that, I met an American nun, Venerable Sangye Khadro, one of the nicest persons I've ever met. Unlike the local clergy, people in the western Sangha weren't borned into Buddhism. They took little for granted, they searched, they found, and by the time they accepted, they had the answers. So these guys have a clue. I remembered exactly the question I asked. I asked her, "I went to church, I saw how they relieved their sufferings. What is there in Buddhism that helps us deal with our sufferings?". Her answer was, "The entire Buddhism IS about dealing with sufferings".
It was like suddenly, somebody opened the floodgates. I immediately understood. I knew I was near.
Quite coincidentally, the venerable was scheduled to give a talk in my university the following week. I attened her talk. Her topic was "Love and Compassion". During her talk, she mentioned the mind. The way to deal with sufferings is to work with the mind. At that moment, everything made sense to me! Everything! I understood completely. I remembered, at that moment, I decided there and then that I wanted to be a Buddhist.
In the months after that, I learned from various teachers from various traditions. From that point on, I picked up knowledge like sponge picks up water. The Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path, etc etc, they came easy. A few months later, I learned Vipassana (Insight) meditation, the most important of all Theravada meditations. Vipassana is perhaps the most valuable thing I've ever learned in my life. With Vipassana, I learned to learn from and about myself, I learned to accept myself and, I learned to cultivate myself. In short, I learned to live the Dharma.
Today, I'm still living and learning. My life is my own zendo. I'm at the same time a horrible teacher to myself and a horrible student of myself. But I feel sometimes that I have learned a lot from the incompetence in the way I teach myself and the way I live my life. As you can tell, I'm happy. :)
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