I became a Buddhist according to the rules back in April 2008. “The rules” in the Tibetan Buddhist lineage I signed onto say that you take refuge, in the presence of a lama (an accredited teacher, doesn’t have to be a monk), in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The authority, his example and teaching, and the community of practitioners.
I was involved with my local TB community for about five years after that, if memory serves. Then my husband and I separated and we gave most of our meditation paraphernalia to the community, a move I now deeply regret. (I especially wish I still had the incense burner, a beautifully decorated wooden box, and the gilt statues of Tara and Chenrezig, aka Avalokiteshvara. I don’t regret the separation.)
I think I really became a Buddhist, though, just a few weeks ago, one morning in the shower when I was stretching to wash my back and thought, “Everything hurts”.
I meant that literally; it seemed like every muscle in my body was aching at the simple, normal exertion of taking a shower. But I realized in that moment that I also meant it metaphorically, or universally: Everything hurt. I had realized for myself the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.
The First Noble Truth is usually translated in English as, “Life is suffering”. That sounds pretty grim, but the word for “suffering”, dukkha, can be translated in a lot of other ways. Western Buddhist authors right now tend to use words like “unsatisfactory” rather than “suffering”. We are perpetually, inevitably dissatisfied with life. We may not be “suffering” like a starving child in Africa, like a family trying to get out of Ukraine, like a homeless addict, but we are unsatisfied, unsettled, never at ease, no matter how much material success or social satisfaction we achieve. Something is wrong with life, or with us.
Over the past few months, I’ve rediscovered Buddhism through author Tara Brach, who is a psychologist as well as a meditation teacher trained in the Insight tradition. I’ve been reading and listening to her books, doing my best to do a bit of yoga and meditation every day (believe me, a little movement first makes meditation easier), and using the prayers I learned from my Tibetan sangha. And while it hasn’t made everything magically better (and under “everything” I include my physical and mental health, the ongoing pandemic, the political madness here in the U.S., and just everyday stress), these practices have demonstrated that they are exactly the tools I need to engage with the mess I’m in. And yes, things are better, just not “magically” better.