Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What matters more?

I’ve been visiting Boston and on Monday, I was hanging out in a Starbuck’s on Central Square drinking coffee and reading “Buddhist Warfare,” about which I will soon be blogging. I found a spot by the window and settled in to read and jot down notes. A few seats over was a young woman reading the Bible and jotting down notes as well.

She eventually initiated a conversation with me, asking whether I was “studying” Buddhism. She was interested in Buddhism and wanted to know more. I said that I was studying the book I had because I needed to know what was in it so that I could be fair in criticizing it.

“But, yes I am Buddhist,” I told her.

She appeared somewhat surprised and asked me how long I had been Buddhist and when I answered, she then asked what had brought me to Buddhism.

“Pain,” I replied. “Seeking a way to end suffering.”

She nodded and said, “I see.” She agreed there was a great deal of suffering in the world. I realized my response came off as a bit vague and esoteric, so I went on to say that “suffering” in the Buddhist sense covered a lot of territory, and included things like when we’re happy, it doesn’t last, or that we try to avoid feeling unhappy, we try to avoid people we don’t want to be around, etc. That, in short, life was a ride of sorts filled with ups and downs and in general was unsatisfactory. “We desire things and even when we get them, we want more, we’re never satisfied.”

That seemed to make a bit more sense to her, and she answered with how her faith – she identified as being Seventh Day Adventist (I think I threw her off as well when I said that I knew what a Seventh Day Adventist was because I had dated a man in the past that was one) – helped bring her hope, that the Bible stories filled her with awe and wonder. That was her remedy, it seemed, for suffering. So I asked her, “What if you avoid doing things that cause suffering or pain in others? Would your own suffering be lessened?”

A puzzled expression immediately occupied her face. “I’m not sure what you mean by that?” Well, I guess I’m not as clever as the Buddha, I thought. So I explained that the Buddha taught that we create most of our own suffering through our actions, often by adding to someone else’s suffering. So if we avoid doing things that bring suffering or pain to others, would that not in turn reduce our own pain and suffering? “If I go outside and call someone and awful name, that person might hit me, right? There are consequences to our actions.”

“Oh yes, there are consequences,” she said. “In fact, sinning brings us death.”

I knew where she was going with this, so I played dumb. “How does sin cause death?

She started flipping through her Bible and I could see she was in Romans (do I dare tell her I think Paul was a misogynistic kook?). She asked if she could read something to me, but I said why does she need to do that? I was very familiar with the Bible, having read several versions, everything from the King James to the NIV. “I’ve also read the Book of Mormon. Although I’m impressed that you’ve read some of the Koran because I am very ignorant of Islam.”

I could tell she was disappointed that I didn’t want her to recite the Bible to me. I said that I knew the passage she was looking up, that it was about “the wages of sin is death.”

“But what if I said to you that birth is the cause of death?” Again, that puzzled look. “Surely you can agree if one is never born, they will not die. So being born causes death. After all, there are people who do not sin, and yet they still die.”

“Hmm, there are people who do not sin but still die,” she murmured. “That’s interesting. Can you name some?”

“Sure, how about Jesus? And what about Mary? They were without sin, weren’t they?”

I’m surprised she didn’t bring up the notion of Original Sin. Instead, she asked whether I believed that Jesus had really lived. Of course, I said, I believed that he lived and he was an important teacher. That, in fact, there are parallels in what Jesus taught to what the Buddha taught. But I also believed that much of what Jesus said was manipulated by others for political reasons. “They needed someone like him, because they wanted to get the Romans out of Palestine.”

I also told her I had a great deal of respect for the Gospels, although the rest of the Bible I considered fantasy. Oh, but the Old Testament was filled with examples of prophesies coming true, she said. An old trick, I replied. Anyone can write a history hundreds of years after an event and make up connections and quotes to show that someone “saw it coming.”

I thought she would counter me with the belief that the Bible was written by God and therefore could not contain factual errors. Instead, that frown of confusion returned. She did in a round-about way ask whether I believed in God.

“It’s not important,” I said. “If I live a moral life and behave well toward others, I will ease my own suffering and the suffering of others, I will increase my happiness right now. And when I am about to die, I won’t fear death over things I might have done in the past, so my dying will be with ease. And if there is an afterlife, I can be assured of a pleasant afterlife because I behaved correctly right now. But believing in the afterlife won’t make it happen on its own. What matters is how I act right now, because that sets up what will happen to me next. So if there is an afterlife, I’m OK. And if there isn’t one, I’m still OK. I don’t need to believe in a heaven. I don’t need to believe in a God. What matters is what I do right now.”

Again, that pondering frown. I was prepared for a reply about facing the wrath of God if I was wrong about whether there was a god. Surely, I would say, her god was a bit more emotionally stable than a spoiled 4-year-old. Instead, she returned her focus to her mini laptop to look something up. The conversation was over. Just like that.

Later I began to wonder why she closed up. Had I created doubt within her about her own beliefs? No, I don’t think that was the case. My conclusion is more cynical. I believe she viewed me as a waste of time. Her interest from the start was more likely to evangelize, to convert me to her way of thinking. When she saw she would fail, she merely stopped engaging me. There was a time when she asked me what type of Buddhism did I follow; I told her the Thai Forest Tradition, or Theravada. She asked me to spell that and she did a Google search. Lord knows whatever she might find in her search results, but at least I can count on the Access To Insight website showing up in the top.

When I left Starbuck’s, I told her that I enjoyed our discussion and hoped the rest of her day went well. Our discussion was pleasant; whether I was skillful I’m not certain. But I always think that it’s a good thing when I don’t piss someone off and they don’t piss me off.


  1. That was really great to read. I wrote awhile back about encounters I had with a couple trying to convert me. It didn't go as "well," in part because this woman you spoke with was more curious about your views than the husband and wife team were about mine. Certainly, that curiosity could have been a set up, but she seems to display something that I didn't experience with that couple, or others like them. So, I don't know what her experience or intent was - but it sounds like you held up pretty good during the conversation.

  2. Fantastic. It sounds like you handled the conversation with skill.

    great post.

  3. Thanks Nathan and Kris. I'm sure I gave her plenty to talk about when she gets together with her fellow church members!

  4. Lovely post. I enjoyed it a great deal.

    I think your exchange went VERY well, as such things go. 7th Day folk can be pretty much a "Wisdom Tradition" as far as such things go in Western Christianity.

    I always preface the inevitably ensuing discussion with the Door-to-Dour (and I MEAN "Dour") evangelicals with, "I am committed and convinced in my beliefs, and I am certain that your time will be more constructively spent talking to someone else." No-one, at this point, has every moved on.

    A group once ganged-up on me at my door, usually they only show up in pairs, but it seemed, and I assume, that there was a heavy hitter in from the USA (from the subtle accent differences) and he was going to show them how the tough nuts were cracked. Five older guys and the Hit man.

    After about 15 minutes he staggered away from the door red from apoplexy and rage. I had never raised my voice, and all I did was ask quiet questions, and corrected him when he tried to obfuscate. I did chastise him once for raising his voice, reminding him that he was my guest, and constrained, as I was, by common courtesy. No-one from that group came to the door for a decade. Now they are coming back again, rarely, and my housemate says we have to find a Hobo so that he can come and put the chalk marks *back on the front walk, to keep them away.

    I studied Christianity with a combined traditions program in Religious Studies in University, and after worked a decade volunteering with two very enlightened Evangelical Ministers (I met them in Shamanism class, LOL) who worked a Cult-Watch and Rescue group. I was their Asian traditions oversight. So I generally know where the bodies of each tradition are buried. The Ministers loved to discuss things with me, but were very loath to have me talk to *their students. Enjoyable time.

    I find, I think like you do, a congenial discussion, mature, informative, measured, can be a joy, and a way of getting to know new and interesting people.


    Robert (@rgyatso)

  5. Thanks Robert. I must say I was impressed with this gal's restraint. Especially when I mentioned that I had dated a man in the past who identified as Seventh Day Adventist. And the fact that she was interested in reading and learning about other traditions. I was very impressed that she had read parts of the Koran (or at least she said she had) and the Torah. But then again, I don't think she was well-equipped for debate. I was just a practice run for her, lol.

  6. Wow, you handled that so well. I find it funny that people take whats in the Bible word for word, especially since so much of it is hear say and written well after most of it supposedly happened.

    I love what you said about wanting something, obtaining it, and then wanting something else. That is something that I have been working on a lot lately. I have to find that peacefulness and happiness from inside of myself and not with "things"

  7. @Nourish, thanks! I appreciate all the compliments, but I do wonder how I would have fared with someone better prepared. But then again, she may have genuinely been interested in Buddhism and was merely offering her own beliefs as a contrast.