I have a hard time defining exactly when I became "Buddhist". I can actually find seeds being planted in my life as early as three years old. My father was involved in the Korean conflict, serving with the U.S. Navy, and brought back buddhist statuary from all over asia. Many of them were very stylized and colorful and, to be honest, downright gaudy. However, one of them was a very ordinary concrete statue of Amida/Amitabha in meditation posture.
There was something about that statue that captivated me. I would many times sit looking at it for an hour or two, without moving - intrigued by the expression on the face. There was something about it that impressed me with a sense that the man portrayed there "saw something", and I used to sit and ponder just exactly what it was that he could see, and wonder about how one went about seeing it. This occured many times throughout my childhood.
My father was, and still is, an avowed atheist who holds a stictly materialist view of "life, the universe, and everything". My mother was/still is a devout believer in the mormon version of christianity. (what a set of polar opposites to be wedged between, eh?) Neither of them had any input whatsoever about buddhism to give me, and the only identification of the statuary that I received from them was that they were buddhas. At the age of three, I also remember one other thing that was distinctly odd, especially in that it is such a clear memory. I remember my parents giving me their versions of where I came from, and not accepting their story. I had a very concrete sense of having existed somewhere before & coming here... in much the same way that you know that you were in another room before you were in this one. No really distinct memories... just a sense. But a sense that was so strong that it was a conviction for me. I have no clue as to where that came from. I was born in 1955. There was nothing in my environment that would input a notion of previous lives into my head.
I was brought up in my mother's religion, but have always been an avid reader, and at age 12, I finally discovered some books in the library that talked about the buddha. I started reading everthing I could get my hands on. I didn't actually receive any instruction in sitting until I was age 15, though, and it wasn't until then that I actually thought of myself as buddhist.
I think all religions go through cycles. It appears to me that buddhism has gone through many cycles of renewal in its movement from one culture to the next. Perhaps we are seeing the very beginning... or even the beginning of a beginning of such a cycle here in the west. I think it is too soon to say that we are even in a stage of infancy as buddhists in this culture. It may be many years/decades/centuries before there is a flavor of buddhism that is distinctly western. I just may not see it yet because I am in the middle of it.
Return to Encounters