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My Personal Experience with Buddhism
by William P. Meyers
I plan to write a series of mostly critical essays on Buddhism. The purpose is to shed some light on natural reality, religious culture, and organizations. This particular essay is to help readers see if I have any bias that they should take into account when reading my analysis of Buddhism, of other religions, or of philosophy.
It is possible that I had a certain degree of exposure to Buddhism at an early age because my father was stationed in Japan when I was four years old (I stayed in the U.S. with my mother and siblings). I recall that he sent usletters and post cards. Unfortunately these relics were not kept, but it is possible that I saw a depiction of the Buddha. In any case I have always admired oriental art, and this probably started in early childhood. My parents also had several small bits of oriental art around the house. The one I remember best was a set of wooden figurines on a table. I believe some had musical instruments, so they probably represented a musical ensemble.
I was nine years old, with my father in a department store in downtown Jacksonville, when he suggested that I buy my mother a birthday present. I believe he offered $5 towards this cause. I looked around the store quite a bit before deciding on a wooden Buddha, of the common, fat, sitting style. My mother accepted it graciously and it was displayed near other nicknacks of an Asian variety. The religion known as Buddhism was not discussed. I did not know that it was a religious artifact; to me it was just art.
I must have learned about the religion, Buddhism, gradually from books. As I was transitioning to being an athiest, as a teenager, I read a book about the various religions of the world. But it did not incline me towards anything except a material and naturalistic viewpoint.
When I was seventeen, while contemplating sets of infinite numbers, I had an experience of an altered state of consciousness. This and then-current events, mainly the war in Vietnam, changed my course in life. Within a few months I decided to study how to bring about peace in the world, rather than pursuing mathematics or science, which were my strongest subjects. At university I became even more disillusioned. I tried Transcendental Meditation and started reading Jack Kerouac's fiction. I had always liked science fiction, and now read works with mystical and Buddhist themes including Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. I also started reading Idris Shah and Carlos Casteneda. I dropped out of college for a year, got bored, and returned to study computer science, Ludwig Wittgenstein (Wikipedia article) (Books By), and just enough political science to complete my major.
Then I saw a poster on a bulletin board. It said "You Are A Robot" and had some sort of graphic illustration. It invited people to a meeting of the Pyramid Zen society. I had heard of Zen mainly from the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Anyway, I went to the meeting.
Zen is a variant of Buddhism that was (maybe still is) popular in the United States. But Zen is no one thing; it is old enough that some very different sects have evolved that use that identifier. This particular sect was not Asian at all. It was started by Richard Rose, who believed himself to be an enlightened Zen master. However, he did have a lineage, a dead Asian man claiming to be enlightened by a string of masters going back to the Buddha, whose name I have forgotten (but not the one mentioned at the Web site).
I became a regular at the Zen society meetings. We did not wear robes or sit cross-legged. We talked about our various pursuits of enlightenment. I did meditation exercises on my own time. When I graduated from college I went and spent a summer at Richard Rose's farm. I tried the various forms of mental activity that Richard recommended. By then I had read about the tradition of Zen, mostly books by Alan Watts and translations of the major classics, but I also had read up on other forms of Buddhism. At the end of the summer I decided to get back to real life, though I dropped in on society meetings from time to time.
I got a job in Washington D.C. There was a Zen group in Washington, so I visited. It was very different. People really did sit cross-legged in robes in front of an oriental master. Sitting Zen, trying to have an empty mind. I tried it a few times but did not find it very enlightening.
A bit later I lived in Berkeley. I went to a Buddhist Center there. This was Tibetan Buddism. Let's just say I was not impressed.
That pretty much sums it up. There are a few things that I like about Buddhism, or from one of its sects, that might be good for human beings no matter what their religion. I'll write about them in another essays. I think both modern and ancient Buddhism are mainly full of mistakes. I'll be examining these mistakes in other articles. The one thing I agree with the Pyramid Zen society about is that enlightenment is largely about getting past illusions; and Buddist traditions have a tendency to mistake illusions for reality and reality for illusions.