What Took Me So Long?

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I was just four and a half months short of my 70th birthday when I found my spiritual home. So what took me so long? Maybe sharing my journey will help you see your path more clearly.

First, of course, some folks have resolved any doubts they have had about the religion they grew up with and feel whole there. Others don’t agree literally with the creed and dogma of their religion but still have a home within it.

If it ain’t broke, we don’t need to fix it. As long as your beliefs don’t include hate toward other sentient beings, you have my blessings.

Chan Khong
During a meditation led by Sister Chan Khong, I realized I am a Buddhist.

But I tend to be literal. While I don’t need to agree with every word uttered in he name of my religion, or see every teacher as a saint/Bodhisattva, I do need to be comfortable with the basics. Growing up, I couldn’t love a God who had made just us Jews his chosen people, or who listened more intensely to 10 men praying than to 9 men or 10 women praying. Even so, it was a personal affront that drove me from the synagogue at the age of 18 — being castigated for my family’s poverty.

Just a year or so later, while community organizing in North Philadelphia, I had my first experience in a black holiness church. As the only white person there, I stood out, and the minster gave his all to save me, but I wouldn’t be saved. In a one-on-one talk afterwards, he asked about my beliefs and told me I sounded like a Buddhist to him. I had been reading some Zen, but the minister’s pronouncement came as a surprise, and it stuck with me.

In my mid-30s, after a severe personal trauma, I went looking for a religion and ended up in Unitarian Universalism, which seeks out the good in all religions. My UU experience gave me the courage to take some deeper plunges into Buddhism and introduced me to the many books in English by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Attending a talk by Nhat Hanh in New York City when I lived there, I was won over by his personality. I checked out some local Asian temples, attended a weekend retreat in Barre, Massachusetts, and read a lot more.

After I moved to Northern Virginia in 1990, I decided I was indeed  Buddhist during a Day of Mindfulness led by Nhat Hanh and his long-time friend, Sister Chan Khong. It was during a meditation led by Chan Khong that something clicked. She had us be the hunter as well as the hunted, the butcher as well as the lamb, and I guess I got non-duality. I remember saying to myself: “You know what, I’m a Buddhist. And you know what else, I’m a vegetarian.” The second “you know what” stuck for only five years, but I am still a Buddhist.

I found a local sangha (community) in Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing and a wonderful, compassionate local teacher, Anh-Huong Nguyen. At a retreat with Anh-Huong, I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings and was given my first dharma name, Nectar of Compassion. At the time, I was also an aspirant to take the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and become a core lay member of the order. But, as much as I love Nhat Hanh and Anh-Huong, I wanted a broader understanding of Buddhism.

I attended Thai, Sri Lankan and Vietnamese temples not connected with Nhat Hanh’s order. I visited and did a retreat at a forest tradition monastery led by Sri Lankan abbot Bhante Gunaratana.  I went to talks and retreats led by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. I took an all-day class with the Dalai Lama.

Lama Surya
Lama Surya Das

What bothered me most about the Order of Interbeing was that I could take none of my outside experience into gatherings of the order. There was only one Buddhism there, the Buddhism as eloquently explained by Nhat Hanh. Nothing by another contemporary Buddhist teacher was ever shared. One thing I seek in a teacher is openness,

So more recently I have found Shin and Dzogchen, two traditions that are non-sectarian. They don’t believe theirs is the only way and often use wisdom from other Buddhist teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh. After reading books and watching videos by Dzogchen’s Lama Surya Das, I knew I wanted to meet him. So I attended his winter retreat January 2-9 in New York State.

While Lama Surya opened new ways for me, he also expressed many of the conclusions I had come to in my decades-long spiritual search. And, to an astounding extent, in answering questions, he worked hard to find the question behind the question — what was really being asked — and to answer that. After three days, I knew I had found my teacher.

Finding your teacher is like finding a spouse. You might settle along the way and either live with that or get a divorce. But if this ornery old man could at last find a teacher, so can you.

— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine

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