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What it’s like being Buddhist

“I’m Buddhist.” 

 As a Chaplain’s Associate, my self-introduction at Chapel events always includes this element. Many people, after knowing what religion I am affiliated with, often ask: “Do you meditate?”, “How do you strike the balance in your life?”, and “Do you go to temples?” 

My answers are respectively: “Yes, mostly at ‘Time to Meditate’ and ‘Buddhist Meditation’ on campus,”  “Imbalance strikes me first and hard so I never get a chance,” and “Yes, but not as often as I go to see fortune tellers.” To clarify, I have no problem with these questions. They set up a good start to Buddhism, indeed. 

However, these questions make me feel that people depict quite a stereotypical image of what it is like to be a Buddhist. 

The fact is that though I know nothing is permanent and suffering is normal, I’m a Buddhist who considers buying a love amulet and potion from sorcerers when I have a crush on someone, and who considers hiring sorcerers to curse people who are racist against me. But I get put off by both not having enough money to do so and fearing black magic returning to ruin my life. 

I look up a mantra to chant for the bleeding to stop when my finger bleeds from a cut. I do not expose myself to the sunlight on a day with a solar eclipse. I try to talk to spirits, souls, and ghosts just in case they are there. I wonder how the ghost population spreads throughout the world. (Does it work the same way as plants and animals? Pandas, kangaroos, kiwi birds, and many plants are local to some areas. Are specific types of ghost local to a specific place/sovereignty too?) 

I find an astrologically auspicious time and date to start something important, I interpret my dreams with a consideration of the time and day I had them. I go to temple to not only give food to the monks, but to also get my future read by tarot and palm readers, and even the monks themselves. 

In Thailand, meditation is a kind of ritual that monks and some lay people choose to do privately. A few hardcore monks, seeking Nirvana or even a miracle power, go into the wilderness to meditate. Meditation camps are often for someone who has time and money to spend. Also, most Thai Buddhists meditate, chant, and go to temples when they want their wishes to be realized. These practices act like sowing the seeds of their wishes into the land. Whether or not they grow depends on the soil and the seed quality too. If nothing is to be reaped, people switch to different temples or practice harder. 

Praying that undesirable things do not happen to me and my family, I sometimes meditate but focus more on chanting mantras in Pali, a liturgical language sacred to Theravāda Buddhism, before going to bed whenever I have time and energy. A lot of my Thai Buddhist friends, going with me to get our future told by fortune tellers and monks at temples, told me they never meditate except for in Buddhism class at school. Also, most Buddhists in Thailand are Buddhists because their parents are Buddhists. Religion is not a choice for them, but rather what they were born with, like family socio-economic class, appearance, and so on.

Now, I still do not have the answer to what it really means to say I’m Buddhist. What I know is that being a Buddhist is not only about meditation and peace. There are multiple aspects of the Buddhism I experience that I do not agree with or like, but this does not mean that I have to take its whole package. Being a Buddhist in a given time and a specific space contains more historical layers, cultural façades, and environmental factors than the word Buddhist itself can express and encapsulate. I also believe this to be the case for all religions and beliefs, and it is this fact that I can never grasp the whole of them, in practice, that makes them truly fascinating and charming to me. 

Finally, staying aloof and observing from afar, which is originally meant to create an objective understanding, can, in fact, distort and limit what you see and comprehend. Therefore, I encourage you to come a little closer and attend Chapel weekly events and services to explore more about different faiths, learn more about various ways to think about life, understand more about people next to you, and most importantly know more about yourself. 

Now, if you’re ready, let’s go to The Hub, scroll down to “About Me,” and click on “Religious Preference” to add what you prefer, in order to receive our weekly email with a list of events and services.

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