My dear mother was a dedicated and devout Episcopalian. While my father was basically disinterested in things spiritual (until he entered old age - more to be said about this), my mother made sure that all three of her strapping sons were thoroughly indoctrinated in the Anglican Catholic faith. In fact, being the oldest I was expected to be a model Christian for my two younger brothers. Both my next youngest brother and I were invited/forced to be altar boys for our church and Father Middleton. Our indoctrination included Bible study, of course, and catechism classes so we could imbibe in consuming the flesh and blood of Christ at holy communion each week. While I never really believed in the holy transmutation at communion, I remembered being concerned at a very young age that we must be cannibals since we ate Christ’s flesh every week at church.
Despite my heavy indoctrination, I never took the obligatory leap of faith, and drank of the Christian Kool-Aid. I remember asking Father Middleton on more than one occasion how he knew that there was life after death. I always got the same answer from the good Father: ‘Because God tells me so every day.’ On questions such as ‘If God is all powerful (omnipotent) and all knowing (omniscient), then he knows that there are children starving all over the world, and he has the power to stop their suffering if so chooses, then why doesn’t he do so?’ – I would inevitably get: ‘God works in mysterious ways that transcend our ability to understand them.’
Even as a young child, before I freely took the leap into the mysterious Christian abyss, I wanted proof that post-mortem existence was real. I didn’t know the discipline or word as a 12-year-old, but what I demanded at the time was empirical evidence that life after death existed – no evidence, no Kool-Aid for this guy. When I got older and became a philosophy student, I became even more dedicated to empirical evidence as prerequisites to understanding as a consequence of studying Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology. I soon became even more insistent that belief must be suspended until the empirical evidence piles high enough to break down the barriers.
Then, I picked up The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau Roshi, and I craved Enlightenment in the worst way. I began to practice Zazen with the appropriate cushions I purchased from the internet. It soon occurred to me in one of my horrendously difficult 10-minute Zazen meditations that in craving and working for ‘Enlightenment’ at some point in the future, I was not walking the Path in the here and now. In addition, Martin Heidegger’s ghost visited me one night and reminded me in the harshest terms that just as with the Christian Heaven, rebirth and the karmic cycle were not subject to empirical proof. Once again, I was being asked to make the dreaded leap of faith – same Kool-Aid, different flavor.
My next question was: Is it possible to walk the Eight-Fold Path and enjoy a measurable decrease in dukkha (suffering) while suspending belief in karma and rebirth? In addition, even as a disenchanted Episcopal altar boy, I was put off by the ritualism and the pomp and pageantry involved in Catholic worship, and Zen had a lot of rituals. Despite some doubts that it would bear fruit, however, I continued to meditate and practice right living as a Zen Buddhist while suspending belief in many of the cosmological truths of Zen Buddhism.
Then, as if by karmic grace, I picked up Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Bachelor. I realized in the first chapter that I was a secular Buddhist and didn’t even know it. The answer to my first question about suspension of belief and the effectiveness of walking the Buddhist Path was answered in spades. No more drinking of Kool-Aid; no more pomp and pageantry; no more nonsense and ritualistic distractions, and no more living for a future state of grace. Thank you, Steven Bachelor.
Finally, while I am glad that I found secular Buddhism, it is one thing for a 24-year old philosophy student to suspend belief in a post-mortem existence, but as a 75-year-old Secular Buddhist, it is a solid and difficult struggle at times. My father became a born-again Christian at the age of 70 because he was afraid that if he didn’t pay homage to the Christian God, he would have either no chance at a post-mortem existence, or, even worse, that he would live eternally in the bowels of Hell. My dedication to Husserl’s phenomenological epoché remains an important tool in my secular Buddhist practice day to day, but on some days as I get older and older, I sometimes crave the sweet taste of Kool-Aid.