It took me forty years to come to Buddhism, if you count all the time since I first became aware of it as a burgeoning religion in this country. Had I been less frozen by my crippling intellect, back in the 1960s and 1970s, I might have listened to a different part of me than that which responded with a kind of haughty rejection to what I was hearing about the great wave of Eastern religious practice arriving in the West. Had I been able to listen to my heart instead of my head, I might have been less dismissive of people like Alan Watts and Ram Dass, whose voices back then were already so strong and clear. Even the Beatles, for God’s sake! But no. I was above all that. It was a fad, I complacently concluded. My brilliant mind would not be fooled by such simplicities.
It would be a while before I came to understand that such strong aversions are always an important clue to precisely what I should be looking at. This was exactly the door I most needed at the time to throw open and walk through; had I done so, I might have learned all those years ago that my heart is a more profound and more reliable guide to life’s mysteries than my head. But I chose not to.
I was brought up in England in the family of an Anglican priest, in awe of a father who read the gospel from the lectern, preached from the pulpit, enacted the ritual of Holy Communion at the altar. I was an altar boy, a member of the choir. I was sent to boarding schools which required attendance at Christian services twice on weekdays, three times on Sunday. I was confirmed, went to confession to atone abjectly for my eminently excusable juvenile sins. But there was always some part of me that never believed in any of it; not in the heart, not in the gut. At the age of eighteen, leaving school and home, I left the church, too, and never returned, except when visiting my parents. I’m quite sure that my father knew of my rejection of his faith, but we never dared bring the subject up between us. I simply went to church when I was home, and he went along with the pretence. It would, perhaps, have been too painful for both of us; and, for him, an open challenge to his own beliefs—about which he himself had sufficient agonizing doubt to keep him busy and, often, sick with physical pain.
So I had my own quarrel with religion. It was in part, as I’ve suggested, an intellectual quarrel: even as a child, my mind could simply not accept the stories I was told as “truth.” I could not believe, for example, in the story of the resurrection from the dead, or in the idea of a heaven awaiting us. Nor, especially, hell. It was beyond belief to me that a supposedly all-knowing, all-merciful God would punish even sinful people with eternal damnation. And if he were so powerful, I reasoned, did he create our species simply for his sport, that he allowed us to behave so badly with our mutual cruelty and wars? These arguments, while admittedly hackneyed when recalled in hindsight, were no less persuasive for that to my growing skepticism.
But it went deeper than intellect. That quarrel gripped me at the deepest levels of memory and consciousness. It took a crisis and an epiphany to begin to turn me around. The crisis? A life-threatening illness, back in the early 1990s, that threatened our family’s happiness and security. The epiphany? Ironically, it took place in a church. I was born on the date in the Anglican calendar that is set aside as the Feast of St. Peter’s Chains, and was given my name for that reason; it was a bolt of lightning when I came upon my namesake’s “chains”—remember the Bible story, how Peter was freed from prison by the angel of the Lord?—preserved in a glass reliquary in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains) in Rome. The realization, at that moment of revelation, was that I had too long been constricted by the chains of my own skepticism and pride.
The search was on. The search, that is, for freedom. It started with some badly needed self-examination—a process I had long resisted on the grounds that it was mere self-indulgence. That self-examination led to the surprising discovery that I had a heart as well as a head! And to the recognition that, in abandoning religion, I had glossed over the fact that in addition to head and heart there was a dimension to my life best conveyed by the word “spirit.” It took me a little while, even then, to discover that these qualities all came together in the Buddhist teachings—and that Buddhism required of me not belief, nor blind adherence to faith, but rather a process of questioning and practice. It required me to continue, precisely, on the path to freedom.
It has been more than fifteen years now since I first sat down, with guidance, to meditate. It took me another couple of years to arrive at the understanding that it needed to be a daily practice, if I was to keep moving forward toward ever greater freedom. My blog, “The Buddha Diaries,” became the daily writing practice in which I sought to track the path to which I now found myself committed. The blog is not, strictly, about Buddhism; it is about the events in my life, what I see and hear and think about, the struggles I go through, the observations and insights I occasionally arrive at as I follow this path. It is, essentially, who I am. And even though I started writing “The Buddha Diaries” some years ago now, I continued for a long time to be reticent about acknowledging the religion for my own. Old fears, old prejudice… Much to unlearn, much more to learn. So it is only recently that I have been able and willing to respond, when asked if I am a Buddhist: Well, yes, I am.
PETER CLOTHIER is known chiefly as a writer about art and artists, having published for many years in national magazines. He is the author, most recently, of Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce (Parami Press, 2010.) His two blogs, “The Buddha Diaries” and “Persist: The Blog” have an international readership. Peter also lectures and leads workshops teaching the relevance of meditation practice and persistence to creative people of all kinds.