A timeline of sorts about my discovery and connection to Buddhism and the Dharma.
Where do I begin? What attracted me to Buddhism? What drew me to continuing my study of the Dharma? Well, maybe a bit of personal history/background would provide a foundation for more historical info.
I come from a Catholic upbringing, the last of six kids, baptized as a Catholic, attended Catholic parochial schools until the end of my freshman year of high school. I was an altar boy during my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years and was never molested! Imagine that! I must be in the minority. So, never a squeal session under the cassock. I even had thoughts of becoming a Maryknoll missionary, going off to Africa (or some such) and being a priest. I went so far as to receive the Maryknoll’s propaganda magazines and attend some of the local seminary altar boy picnics. How exciting those were! Not! Imagine if you will… a bunch of pubescent, goody-goody boys running around playing softball, eating watermelon with priests and brothers. Zow! Ahh… the Age of Innocence.
Move forward to 8th grade graduation… I am awarded the “Most Religious” award from the pastor of the local church. His words to me as I accepted the little medal, “This is only the beginning.” A bit ominous, but true in many ways. What did he see in me?
In a word, warped! Not especially broken, but slightly bent, a little twisted. I went to an all-male Catholic college prep high school for my freshman year. One year was enough! Too damned much testosterone for my tastes. I stopped attending Catholic services my sophomore year of high school and rarely ever set foot in a Catholic church since then.
I grew up during the Vietnam war and was vehemently against the killing and destruction happening every day. My older brother was shipped off to ‘Nam and served during 1968-1969 year. I requested that a prayer be said for him and for his safety every day during my 8th grade school year. It was a horrible time. (He survived and returned physically unharmed.) I was classified 1-H in my senior year of high school. The 1-H classification is a “holding” category, my number would be up and I would have been put between a rock and a hard place, having to make a decision of serving (not freakin’ likely) or taking a little road trip to Canada.
My first real encounter with any teachings that was outside Catholic doctrine was when I read “Be Here Now” and “Grist For The Mill” by Ram Dass (Richard Alpert.) This was circa 1974. I was a little afraid of what I was reading, mostly concerned that Ram Dass’ words were somehow sacrilegious, I had no real previous exposure to teachings outside the scope of accepted Catholic doctrine. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t a total innocent nor completely clueless. I had read Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” in 8th grade–the nuns were a little taken aback! I had attended anti-war demonstrations in my little home town, had numerous incidents of being chemically altered during my sophomore year in high school. I was deeply touched with Ram Dass’ obvious spirituality, how in touch he was with his connection to humanity; my lack of being totally cynical put me in a space where I was able to see the truth of his words. Ram Dass wrote beautifully and touched my heart, but I didn’t discern that he was providing any methods or practices I could use to make sense of my life and my place in the world.
A little side trip that was a real life-altering experience: my older brother, Michael, had AIDS and was seriously ill from AIDS-related opportunistic diseases. His partner received help with day-to-day care taking from a local San Francisco AIDS-support organization known as Shanti. I helped with respite care for my brother on a number of weekends and my heart was opened again, I rediscovered my compassion (or metta as it is known in Buddhism.)
I bring up Shanti because I later went through their volunteer/HIV-AIDS support training in my home town around 1992. This training was another vehicle that helped to open my heart, see beyond myself. I finished the training (one weekend of a Friday night, all-day Saturday, and the majority of a Sunday, and then an additional training session each week for eight weeks) and was chosen to be a volunteer. I was assigned my first HIV/AIDS client shortly thereafter. I worked with my client, Bo, being a listener, being an advocate for his health care, helping with errands, and finally being present while he died. My presence with Bo while he died was why I trained: he would have died alone.
I put my training to use again a year later when my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma, colon cancer and ended up in a coma in the hospital after surgery. She passed away right as I passed her a rosary: she closed her hand around the rosary and took her last breath and expired. I was fortunate to be with her and to help her move along.
Flash forward about two years… I picked up a small book by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Buddhist monk/teacher from Viet Nam named Thich Nhat Hanh. I found a great introduction to Buddhism and mindfulness in his “The Long Road Turns to Joy“ guide to walking meditation.