Religion is full of thistles and barbs and egos making strange decisions in the name of morality. It’s full of rules and politics that seem arbitrary; a sticky web cast over a crowd that gets tangled under your armpits when you try to develop your own relationship with God, the universe, a three-chord pop song or a tree stump.
But faith is something else. I believe in it. I believed in it before I had any idea what my faith was in.
I remember reading Black Elk Speaks in college and being confounded by the conversion of an 19th century Oglala, Lakota Medicine Man to Catholicism. My classmates and I debated over whether he became a champion of a European religion of his own free will, or under threat of our violent tendencies. Surely it was the will of the translator, not the man.
“I think he states it pretty simply,” the professor chimed in once we’d exhausted the discussion. “He watched Catholic people worshipping, and marveled at the peace it brought them. He wanted that for himself and his people.”
We, the privileged students of a private institution of higher learning, satiated with Howard Zinn and Ronald Takaki, were anxious to believe that such a shift in faith could only be a product of oppression. That assumption, I came to realize, is itself a kind of prejudice or -ism, and not one necessarily advocated by the historians I was reading, who were really about setting the record straight and pushing students like us to make sure we questioned the legends we’d been raised with.
But something about that professor’s insight resonated with me. Faith in action looks and feels very different than religion or dogma in action. I feel we are right, even morally obligated, to question the political stances of religious institutions. But personal faith is something else.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with people whose beliefs about the nature of the universe and the hows and whys of being human couldn’t be more different from my own. But we share the recognition that we can be spiritual together when we leave religion at the door.
For six years, I have been sitting through dharma talks, saying mantras, reading and learning about Buddhism, volunteering for my local center, even trying to see motherhood as a form of practice. But I didn’t think I had committed. I have said here before that I’m not a real Buddhist because I hadn’t taken the Refuge Vow.
It turns out I was. I just decided to formalize it a couple of months back, when I finally took my vow and received the name Karma Dawa Palmo from a teacher that I dearly love.
The Dalai Lama has said that “All major religions carry the same messages. Messages of love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline. I have Muslim friends, Christian friends. All have these same values.”
Oddly enough, being around people who sometimes mention other religions by name, even in the rooms where the rules state that they aren’t supposed to, has helped me get to a place where I could make an outward commitment to my own. I find myself able to be close to people who are endeavoring to live a Christlike life as I try to work to awaken my Buddha nature.
I’ve come to realize that part of the reason Buddhism feels right to me has to do with the things it shares with Christianity, even though the differences are often what brings Westerners like myself to explore it. We share a path of faith.