My last blog entry, The Protestant Tibetan Buddhist Confesses, received some attention and showed the struggle of being a Buddhist in protestant Oklahoma. My poem was meant to spark attention to struggling Buddhists who convert to a different religion. Americans with a Catholic or Greek Orthodox background may find the acculturation process much easier since they have experience with hierarchical religious institutions. I wish to add that, for the most part, my religious beliefs align tightly to the practices in Vajrayana Buddhism, while some cultural differences have caused me to struggle. Do I adapt to these differences or integrate my Protestant American upbringing with the Vajrayana practices?
As an American, born and raised in Arkansas and Oklahoma, an independent streak of non-hierarchy passed through me on many levels. First, I lived a Romantic style of independent thought and engagement with nature. Hierarchy in church and outer culture did not impress upon me in my early years. The idea of mass, liturgy, sadhanas, or other organized structures was a foreign concept. If I read a poem or biblical verse, I received the independence to interpret its meaning symbolically or literally and change my view later in life. Thus, the concept of hell, the creation stories, flood story of Noah, and others later became mythology for teaching me about ideas and values instead of some literal meaning I must fear.
Next, nature existed as an extension of my independence. Climbing trees allowed an informal religious practice of merging my identity with the sky, clouds, or a soaring hawk or eagle. I lived in a rural neighborhood integrating with a giant forest for my body, speech, and mind to develop. I was no different than the reflection in the wandering creek, the wind’s presence at the top of trees blowing limbs like little fingers, or the little squirrels hopping from tree to tree to collect enough food for the winter months. In some respects I lived in two worlds: free thought and nondualism. The nondualistic state of childhood withered over time, but the more I study and practice Vajrayana Buddhism, its presence flourishes heavily like merging with the rays of direct sunlight.
Chogyam Trungpa’s book title, Spiritual Materialism, reminds me of my own protestant landscape. We, Americans, are capitalists, but that function in society is merely one value that can be viewed positively or negatively, according to cultural differences. Automobiles. Baseball. Classical Hollywood Cinema. Disney World. The Internet. Steel. Staplers. Computers. You name it. We actively engage in this materialistic realm. However, my relationship with objects did not always describe my spiritual existence. In fact, they embraced it! The film, Field of Dreams, impressed upon me the value of faith and devotion mixed with the American ideal of work and vision. The Kevin Costner character did not invest in a baseball field to make a profit; he re-connected to the significance of our land, its ecology, and the farm culture which still thrives as a trope in our vast dreams. “Build it and he will come,” says the vision in Costner’s imagination. This idea reminds me of the significance of parents and compassion toward all beings because in the film’s final conclusion, the Costner character receives the opportunity to play catch with his father. Costner is the yogi of the film seeking enlightenment not only for himself but for a wider audience!
I could write about 84,000 different American experiences that relate to the basic tenets of all Buddhist practices. I could speak about the band U2, among other great musicians, that merged a religious message with social justice. When Bono sings, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” I imagine myself on the meditation cushion still searching for nirvana and still becoming acquainted with my Buddha nature. How do I grow without questioning the depths of my human experience? How do I continue to flower the concepts of patience, virtue, compassion, love, and acceptance—many qualities I learned from watching Sesame Street or Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood in the 70s?
I will continue to write about this topic as I progress as an American (former Protestant) in a Vajrayana realm. There are so many questions I have yet to grasp. What does an open culture say about Vajrayana Buddhism in the United States? What are the effects on my independent streak with the concept of a guru or lama? What have my experiences in nature revealed to me about various teachings from the Buddha? How has nature impacted my relationship with meditation. And, can Protestant Americans successfully overcome language barriers and cultural differences to achieve nirvana through the Tibetan Buddhist pathway?
I look forward to my journey. I hope I encounter others, too, who are facing similar questions or issues, as the message of Buddhism impacts American culture and leads all sentient beings toward compassion and freedom from suffering.