Confessions of an ex-Catholic Spiritual Seeker
Posted on Wednesday, November 16th, 2011 at 3:14 pm
It never ceases to amaze me how we live our lives shrouded by several layers of veils! We think we know the assumptions that are guiding our actions but, so often, we don't. The veils shield them from our view. And then, one day, a wise being gently prods one of these veils, saying something like: "I think there's something underneath your question that is niggling you". And this riddle gets you thinking.
And so it was for me, a short while ago while I was on retreat. I was finding myself conflicted over my loyalty to a particularly ornate, daily, tantric Vajrayana practice given to me in a Tibetan Buddhist empowerment several years ago. Specifically, I was struggling to relate to some of the language and symbols in the meditative visualisation that appeared to belong to an ancient and alien culture. As part of the conflict, I was drawn to spend more time 'just sitting', mindfully watching experience unfolding in the present moment. So it was no coincidence that I chose this retreat, organised around Anapanasati, or mindful breath meditation.
Many paths or just one right way?
Another aspect fuelling my uneasiness with this particular Tibetan Buddhist meditation that I had undertaken to practice daily was that, for some years now, I have been noticing and holding question over the wide range of spiritual beliefs and practices that are so fervently believed in by us humans. Whether these are based on belief in one God, many gods or no god, there is evidence that many people are prepared to give up their freedom, be killed (or kill the unbeliever) in defence of their belief. There is evidence that great wisdom and compassion, or blind prejudice and persecution, can accompany these many disparate religious explanations about the human condition and the world we live in.
So if there are many paths to the same place of wisdom and compassion, why is it that many of us are so determined to find the 'right' path? Thankfully, in many parts of the world, there is now more religious tolerance - and even respect - of different religions and spiritual paths.
The veils of ignorance
My conflict and question about 'the right path' is at a much more subtle level than an overt belief that there is only one right way. Intellectually, and from a values perspective of inclusiveness and respect for difference, I was unaware that I was seeking a 'right' way when I expressed my doubt about practicing this particular daily meditation. So we're back to the veils that cover the assumptions that drive us!
When I looked deeply (in a meditation session) at what was behind my uneasiness, I was truly surprised to discover a hidden assumption of only one right way. One spiritual truth. One set of best spiritual practices. As I followed the trail, I found that it led back to my childhood and early youth, immersed in the Catholic faith. This teaching of exclusive righteousness was backed up by the threat that to disobey or leave this religion landed you in hell! Ironically, one of my overt criticisms of Catholicism - once into my teens and now - is their claim to being the only 'true' (or right) faith. Ah ha! What a shock to discover that this piece of religious indoctrination was, at a very deep level, secretly guiding my present spiritual practice.
The light of awareness liberates!
The interesting thing is that, like all insight, once seen, the hidden assumption dissolves under the light of awareness. It has also been interesting to observe how the demise of this assumption dissolved the spiritual conflict I was experiencing. In its place I have found myself free to blend a form of the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice with mindfulness practice, uncluttered by alien cultural forms. I am no longer frightened to improvise. The unseen threat of damnation or excommunication is gone.
I am sharing this particular experience with you as I am aware that many of my peers who identify with Tibetan Buddhist teachings and practices, grew up under the Catholic umbrella and were, like me, spiritually conditioned by Catholic views at a vulnerable age.
Can any of you relate to this experience of discovering hidden religious assumptions, laid down in childhood, that have covertly 'muddied the waters' of current spiritual practice? I'd love to hear about them.
Hare Krsna - Your incredible web blog has already delivered joy and happiness to my soul. Sing out the praises connected with Lord Hanuman.
Hi Jacqui, thanks for your article, i don't know if
this is relevant or useful but sprung to my mind anyway
- sceptical doubt as being one of the three fetters
to drop away...along with of course belief in pemanent
or fixed self and belief in rite and ritual, superstition. I guess doubt can be a common and recurring
(and ultimately useful !) theme in practice hey...regards to you and Alan...Peter
Hi Peter, I would just like to clarify that the doubt that I am expressing in my blog is not sceptical doubt but I did notice that it invited in sceptical doubt as a possibility that I discarded. The doubt I experienced was closer to genuine question and a prompt to look more deeply at reasons for the arising uneasiness evoked by cultural differences in language and chosen symbols. So it was part of the "common and recurring (and ultimately useful) theme in practice" that you speak of. My experience was also relevant to "belief in right and ritual" - a belief that, intellectually, I clearly understood as misguided - but at a deeper, conditioned, emotional level was still pulling at me! Many thanks for your observation about the three main fetters to fall at stream entry and their relevance to this piece. Warm wishes, Jacqui
There are many points to comment on here, but I would like to simply say that Buddhism has also assisted me to appreciate my childhood christian roots with even more clarity and appreciation than before. My heart is filled at all moments with gratitude for the teachings I have witnessed - the three jewels acknowledged by all religious traditions, and the sitting, active practice, and satsang of Buddhism, to develop our essential self-awareness and to understand our humility in a world obviously filled with a higher or divine power, individually perceived.
But I do have compassion for those not yet 'touched' or still looking for those metaphorical glasses - when will they be inclined to address the mirror? Good to have a new article by East West Wisdoms, tks.
Many thanks, Jac-Aileen, for sharing how Buddhism has helped highlight for you the common ground in all the main religions. Warm wishes, Jacqui.
What do we mean by alien?
Is "it" alien to us? Or are we alien to "it"? Does alien exist or is it just a figment of our imagination like most of our imperfections?
Agreed, so many great sages with basically one message.
All is one, be good to all.
Haha, that's funny isn't it because we have all searched so long and hard for this oneness, this perfection, balance, God, Allah, Buddhaness, Atma, Madhayamika, enlightenment, the answer, the infinite becoming... (Please cut and paste your own logo here). Yet, we seem to find it elusive, don't we? That is even more funny.
Have you ever tried to pick up a drop of water with tweezers. Also elusive and frustrating but really quite funny. Maybe it is a little bit the same.
If we are walking on rocky ground and we suddenly stub our toe, what happens?
Firstly, the toe hurts. Yes, I know that there is a reaction of the central nervous system and the brain causes various nuclei to fire, etc, etc... but lets keep it simple for the sake of a long winded explanation being a bit boring.
Firstly, the toe hurts, the mouth yells out something like "May all beings never stub their Bloomin' toe" or something else. The back bends, the arms extend, the hands reach out, the fingers fold to hold the toe, the teeth grit to conceal the pain, adrenalin is created and rushes to the required area. The entire body acts as one, there is no separation between the toe and the rest of the body except for the sense of isolated pain.
That's quite interesting isn't it? "Except for the sense of isolated pain."
Now pay attention 007, this may be important later (sorry I'm a bit of a joker).
I believe this next concept is probably not foreign to any of us. That is why we are all here on Jacqui's wonderful site. Thank you Jacqui.
If there was truly a oneness that binds all, then we would be part of it whether we liked it, understood it, experienced it or not. If this was true, then what would be the one undeniable root cause for our individual feeling of isolated pain. I'm sure some of you are yelling the answer at the screen. Sorry I'm too disconnected to hear you, Haha!
It's really quite simple and I know at least a handful of pretty smart guys and girls in funny clothes who have been compassionate and wise enough to remind us.
The answer is 'Ego'. The true meaning of Ego is a belief of self existence. Only a belief of self existence would disconnect one from all. How can one part of all find the answer to all, when it is actually already part of the all. What a headspin, Huh!?!?
Just like a man (or woman) who has lost his glasses can not see properly to find his glasses. Then through frustration he looks in the mirror to gather his thoughts, because he at least thinks he knows, what he looks like. And there perched on his own head is the very thing he has looked everywhere for. The glasses that give him such great vision. Perhaps what we are looking for is right here, perched upon our own seemingly disconnected mind and perhaps our everyday life is just a mirror to show us what we are trying so hard to look elsewhere to find.
The Ego itself, just like all the other defilements can be transformed and used effectively if the correct Dhyani, or wisdom is applied.
Remember that guy Prince Siddharta. What a massive ego. So massive that he believed, that by transforming it into a pure unclinging state, devoid of unattached self existence (or suffering) that he would be able to find the Ultimate Truth. Thank God for Buddha's Ego. We can all learn so much about 'the all' from this one.
So... We need to let go of attachments, to stop being unattached to the all?
We need to let go of the self of one, to selflessly understand the oneness.
Use the Ego, to loose the Ego, to be one.
Look within, instead of without.
Stop looking for perfection and just understand and experience this perfection, this emptiness.
Bahahaha! What a hilarious situation we find ourself in.
Maybe it is a little like that, who knows?
Anyway, thats me for now. I don't know so much and I am sure their are some great minds out there who have some great wisdoms to share. Eastern or Western. Same, same. Thanks again Jaqui!
"Thank you providence, thank you silence, thank you India, thank you disabandonment", Alanis Morisette.
Thank you Dharma, Thank you emptiness, Thank you His Holiness Sakya Trizin, Thank you Khon family, Thank you Their Holinesses, Thank you to all that is Guru, Thank you Khenpo Ngawang Dhamchoe, Thank you Their eminences, Thank you all nuns and monks, Thank you Ladies, Thank you Buddha, Thank you Jesus, Thank you Mohammed, Thank you Krishna, Thank you Mum and Dad, Thank you Rina, Thank you children. Thank you all.
I love you one, I love you too xoxo
Hi Gray, many thanks for your wise observation on the central, pivotal point of self-clinging as the source of our pain and sense of separateness. I agree that ego has its uses and tends to play a significant part in raising useful question but that it is also a conditioned entity, devoid of separate existence. It can lead us down helpful and unhelpful paths but, in the end, it is only a socially constructed concept, empty of inherent reality. My story in this blog is an example of how my conditioned ego led me down one of these paths. Warm wishes, Jacqui
Hello Jacqui, I can only add that I, too, grew up as a Polish/German Catholic and have a secret yearning,still, for that orderly and mystic presence in my life. But that didn't prevent me from being a most ardent seeker of other Truths. I relished Protestantism for a while, followed by Hinduism/Vedanta which was very fulfilling; then on to Theravaden and Mahayana Buddhism which finally broke the camel's back and propelled me into the arms of Jesus, where I now happily reside. Jesus is the guru I now follow; and, being enriched by all the other experiences, I now have no difficulty to understand His teachings and make them own path of Truth. Peace at last. May Peace be with you too!
Hi Danuta, many thanks for your sharing. I am so happy that you have found the loving arms of Jesus and are finding his teaching so useful. Warm wishes, Jacqui
Jacqui - this makes so much sense to me. I am left with thoughts of how important it was for me to have a sense of belonging: if I believed in the religion of my family and my friends, then I belonged to a group. No matter that the words of that religion were sometimes about love and sometimes about judgement and punishment, the latter engendering a lot of fear in me, I stood by the beliefs. So I kept believing, wanting to belong, but coming from a place of fear.
Over the years, the fear has peeled off bit by bit, but like you, every so often I find another veil of childhood belief that catches me by surprise - and that I can discard. Thank God, or whoever, for consciousness - and love.
Hi Cynthia, I do agree that we all need to feel a sense of belonging. The tricky thing is that when one feels out of step with the particular community that we have historically identified with, it can feel a terrible wrench to step away. It is also a challenge to step away with compassion and love in one's heart. And, as you say, we can chip away the bits we don't agree with - including the learned fear that keeps you hooked - and still stay aligned with the group as a whole. We can live our membership to the group in our own unique way. I guess that's what I am doing when I refer to modifying the form of my daily meditation so that it fits the basic requirements of the form I have been given to work with and my own arising needs. Warm wishes, Jacqui
You could be writing for me and a whole lot of other "Catholics"; born into an Irish Catholic fmaily; steeped in a religion that spoke a foreign language (Latin) for a lot of early years - always hesitantly walking with an awareness that "one wrong move...and down and down I go...to hell"; impressionable 10 y.o. Brownie standing in that portion of a building (neutral territory) with the "protes-tant" entrance to the left and the "catholic" to the right...waiting to start the Sun-day brownie parade...waiting for the lightning to strike me dead if my foot accidentally tipped over that "invisible line" to the "bad guys' side" of the building. I can chuckle as I write, but still I feel the depth to which those teachings were ingrained in my soul, that only Catholics were going to heaven. I could go on and on...my journey if you can believe it brought me "radically" to Pentacolists and on and on and on.....
I think maybe a little of each man made religious organiations has a 'piece' of the 'puzzle' of Truth...but it is with hesitation I approaching anything new and yet at the same time, with an open mind always, seeking Truth - Love & Light.
Thank you for this post! You stirred up (a hornet's nest) some things!
Hi Velma, thank you for your great example of the burden of fear placed on children growing up in communities where religious rivalry and hatred of 'the other' is endemic. It does indeed appear like we have to 'feel', rather than intellectually grab hold of 'Truth', and even then our minds should always remain open and interested in looking deeper, realising how easily we get fooled by the veils of our conditioned learning. Warm wishes, Jacqui
I agree and think, for what it's worth, that this insight has pervasive implications.
Many thanks for your beautiful and insightful article.
One idea that may have muddied the spiritual waters for many and for myself has been the Western idea that we start off as flawed individuals because somewhere back in time as a human race we have sinned - it all goes back to when Adam and Eve disobeyed God we are told. This idea continues to cause suffering for some because it is ingrained in our psyche.
It has been a relief for me to come across the Buddhist concept that we have within ourselves a shining Buddha nature, the jewel hidden in a pile of rubbish. This Buddha nature is already there ... and we don't need to earn it or go out to discover it.
The implications of this idea is so liberating, in part because we can work at pulling away the veils that block us seeing our own - and humanity's- innate goodness.
Hi Richard, yes - I agree with you that replacing the guilt and fear evoked by the theistic emphasis on being born with sin, and continually mired by sin, with the concept of the essential purity of our inner Buddha nature - is a great relief. It flavours our experience with light, love and hope and it supports us having a more loving relationship to ourselves (from a relative perspective) and to all beings. Love is so supportive! Warm wishes, Jacqui
Hi Jacqui, lovely to here from you again and a timely topic and one i have been pondering myself of late. I can only wholeheartedly agree with your insight as i to wwas brought up in a strict Irish protestant family surrounding where the thought of even questioning anything written in the Bible would ammount to certain damnation, in fact two of my brothers still hold on to those beliefs and see my Buddhist belief as confirmation of the devils work and influence in the world today. The liberating thing about rejecting those beliefs of my child hood and adolesence is now i can see the real beauty of the teachings of Christ, Mohammad and the Buddha and all the great sages and gurus without the burden of guilt and i can pratice as a Buddhist because it best suits my life style /ambitions.Buddhism gives me the freedom to appreciate the goodness in all people without quantifying that goodness based on whether they have the same spiritual beliefs that i do. Regards Bill
Hi Bill, I couldn't agree more with you about the liberating effect of Buddhist teachings that explicitly respect the teachings of other religions and the benefits of many spiritual paths to suit the different needs of beings. One of the aspects of Buddhism that I most value is its inclusiveness and encouragement to always pray for the wellbeing and happiness of ALL beings. As you say, it frees one up to look with an open mind at the teachings of Christ, Mohammad, the Buddha and all the great sages. I love the way the Dalai Lama travels the world espousing respect and support for the many spiritual paths travelled while also clarifying particular ways in which Buddhism takes a different (but not better) view. Warm wishes, Jacqui