Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Fill out the form below or submit your question online.
Sarah, I’m curious how you came to be a Buddhist?
I became a Buddhist suddenly as well as gradually. But let me back up and tell a relevant anecdote. Long ago, I saw Maya Angelou at a book reading in Berkeley at which she responded to an audience member calling himself a Christian. With a look of dumbfounded astonishment (and perhaps a twinkle in her eyes) she said, “What? Already?”
I keep her words close when I call myself a Buddhist. If we’ve truly found the path of our heart, perhaps it’s not a static state — the “arrival” Angelou was poking fun at — but something that leads us forward and forward in a particular direction. Path and fruit it’s called in Buddhism: the fruit is how you come to know the path. In other words, the benefits of Buddhist practice such as sati, mindfulness, and metta, loving kindness, are felt both immediately and over time. You might hear an overlapping echo with a famous Bible verse (Matthew 12:33): “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.”
To extend the fruit metaphor just a bit further, I was ripe for a faith path early on. When I was 18 months old, my family experienced a horrific tragedy. The social and religious culture of the 1950’s could neither address nor hold the fallout of grief and chaos of any survivor. In fact, as was the norm of those times, the tragedy was never spoken of. Over the years, that single disaster lengthened into a horizon with no end in sight. By the time I was a teen, I knew that the spiritual solace I longed for lay outside of the barren world of mid-century Presbyterianism surrounding me.
As a religious studies major at the University of Colorado, I explored various religions through the academic route. I also threw myself into pseudo-religion through Japanese martial arts. A sudden bump into Buddhism at a wholly different level occurred while hiking solo in Nepal and encountering a Tibetan Buddhist monk on a tiny path above a roaring gorge (great metaphor in retrospect — immediate death on one side and a tiny path to cling to on another). He smiled at me as no human had before. Unburdened. Something that I would have named love but more pure — without romantic love’s pulls or entanglements or debts. The moment became a compass in my life’s trajectory: an aspiration to be able to smile at the world as freely and openly as the monk.
Years passed, though, before pursuing Buddhism further. The mesmerizing charms of romantic love and its busy result in two beautiful children landed us in the San Francisco Bay area looking for jobs as well as a religion to answer those irksome existential questions every toddler asks: why are we here? Every holiday called into question what and how we would celebrate, so ambivalence can’t linger long. We did a lot of sampling of the Bay Area of faith communities. As is often still the case for me, what I sought was right under my nose. The new Spirit Rock Center, home to Jack Kornfield, a leading figure in bringing Theravada Buddhism to the West (take a look at his books and audio talks), was just down the road from our house in Fairfax. After months of searching for a spiritual home, I returned from the evening meditation and declared to my husband: “I found what we’ve been looking for.”
Whether that’s the sudden or gradual route, I’m not sure. But afterwards, there was no turning back. The more I studied Buddhism, the more I meditated and practiced, the more it made sense deep in my bones. Soon after becoming a regular at Spirit Rock, I heard the famous Kalama Sutta, a recounting of the Buddha’s words to the Kalama people. In it, he gives ten criteria for examining the validity (good fruit?) of any teaching, including his own:
“As they sat there, the Kalamas of Kesaputta said to the Blessed One (the Buddha), “Lord, there are some brahmans and contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. And then other brahmans and contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain and in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?
“Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them…When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”
At last, I thought when I first heard this sutta, here is a wisdom path that doesn’t require a giant leap of faith as an entry ticket. Instead, one tests her experience over time. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says in the translator’s explanation to the sutta: “…any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise.” And so I’ve found myself both a student of my experience as well as the Buddha’s teachings, a student of various Buddhist denominations and a student of a number of teachers, continually checking one against another from the touchstone of my life.
Did I become a Buddhist? Some of us characterize the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, as discovery, not pre-packaged answers, not dogma to squeeze experience into, but a gradual, and sometimes sudden, opening to the truths of the human predicament. The Buddha never called himself a Buddhist nor did he label his teachings Buddhism. He was one of the great thinkers the world has known describing a path to happiness he dis-covered through experience. Thus far, much to my delight, whenever I glean an insight through the methods we’ve labeled Buddhism, I’ve always found that the Buddha arrived at that understanding millennia ahead of me.
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