Maybe I’m weird, but I love autumn. Growing up in a Philadelphia row house in the 1950s without air conditioning, the coming of fall meant better sleep as cool breezes came through the screened window. Fall brought crisp apples. It brought the opportunity to rake dried leaves into piles, jump up and down on them, and then enjoy the smell as we set them afire. (Remember, it was the ’50s.) I enjoyed the excitement of starting a new school year, and even the touch of anxiety as the night fell while I was still allowed to be outdoors without adult supervision.
Loving fall fits my Buddhist perspective. Autumn is the reminder of impermanence. That’s why Buddhist monks wear robes of autumn colors. The leaves dry up, transform and fall from their trees to begin new lives in the earth and the air as their tree parents rest before giving birth to new leaves. One stage in the cycle of life.
In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, brilliant social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that, as with so many other traits, both nature and nurture play a role in determining our morals and our religious beliefs. He believes we evolved religious and moral systems as it became adaptive for us to form groups larger than family units. And he says the genes we inherit give us a sort of first draft of our belief system, which then gets edited and revised by our environment.
I’ll come back to Dr. Haidt in a future post, maybe tomorrow, but in the meantime I wonder what it is that predisposed me, or opened me up, to fall, autumn colors, impermanence and Buddhism. My ethnic background is almost 100% Ashkenazy Jewish, with my father and my maternal grandparents immigrating to the U.S. from a swampy little shtetl in what is now Belarus.
I like to believe it was that holiness preacher I met in 1965, when I was 19. It makes a good story anyway. I worked that summer in a community organization program in the North Philadelphia inner city. For some of the young people I worked with, their church was a vital part of their life, and they wanted me to experience it. As we walked to the tiny storefront church, they warned me: “There will come a time in the service when the minster tries to save people. Don’t worry about it. He’ll come up to you and ask if you know that the Lord Jesus Christ is your personal salvation. Just say yes and he’ll leave you alone.”
It turned out to be more complicated than that. After 45 minutes or so of wonderful singing and testifying, the two ministers set about taking turns trying to save someone. And it was clear it was me, the only white person there, they were trying to save. They even got everyone else in the place to stand up in a circle around me as I tightly gripped my seat for fear I’d get saved — whatever that meant — out of peer pressure and embarrassment. Finally, one of the ministers did come over and asked if I knew that the Lord Jesus Christ was my personal salvation. Being an agnostic with a Jewish heritage, I said: “No,” and that led to a long conversation.
I have no memory of what we said to each other, except that it was calm and mutually respectful, but at the end he informed me that I sounded like a Buddhist. I had read some D.T. Suzuki, as was the fad among college students in the ’60s, but I was too young to understand him. So I like to believe it was that holiness preacher who gave my my first nudge toward the Buddha.
Even if that’s true, there was something in my, well, let’s call it soul, that opened me to Buddhism. And I’m grateful for that. But I’m also aware that something in their souls calls to holiness preachers, Baptists, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, and so on — whether they like the word “soul” or not. I’m thankful for them, too.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine