Sometimes, when Christian friends and acquaintances find out that I am a Buddhist, I actually see a quick spark of shock in their eyes. It is a quick one, about a second or two, and then they smile. People are generally polite to us Buddhist; they do not feel threatened because we are not known for waging wars and crusades in the name of Buddha. We are also not very active in our recruitment program. For us, everyone can be a Buddhist. Find your path to enlightenment. If being an a**hole for decades is the key to discovering the meaning of your existence and the true nature of reality, so be it. We all thread different paths to nirvana. But still, to many Filipinos, being a Buddhist is like being a penguin in a tropical country. How can that be possible? How can you abandon Christianity? Were you raised as a Buddhist? Are you Chinese or Thai? Did you grow up in this country? Well, I was born in the Philippines. I was raised a Catholic. My father was a Catholic [“was” because he passed away], and my mother was a member of Iglesia ni Cristo but she was forced to leave her church when she married a Catholic. She still watches Catholic mass on television because she is now in her mid sixties and she has a knee problem.
I remember sitting on a bench in U.P. reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” when two affable-looking college students approached and asked me if they could talk to me about Jesus. I politely said, “I’m sorry but I’m an atheist.” Then, they started asking me more questions about my reasons for being an atheist. Now, I did not mind having a healthy discussion about religion but I really needed to finish reading the novel or else I would not be able to write a book report in time so I politely told them that I was busy and bid them adieu.
These kinds of reactions are understandable. Some Filipinos think that all Buddhists believe in that big fat bald Asian man with a big smile on his face and he is surrounded by many small fat little children. The stereotypical image of Buddha is not exactly sexy compared to the European-looking Jesus Christ with blue eyes and lean body. People also think all Buddhists believe in reincarnation. When I die, I will come back as a cockroach. Believe me; the concept of reincarnation is tempting in the Philippines. There are some government officials that I would like to come back as dung beetles or rats. Justice at last! But I digress.
If there are many Christian denominations, there are also many Buddhist denominations so we are complicated as well.
Buddhism is much a philosophy as it is a religion. Buddhism can be a philosophical approach to life. Steve Jobs employed Buddhist philosophy in his product design and his business. Lisa Simpson is a Buddhist. Being a vegetarian is kind of like being a Buddhist.
In the past, when some people learned that I studied for a time in the University of the Philippines (U.P.), I would hear them say, “Oh, you went to U.P., that place is so liberal, so secular. No wonder.” Honestly, I did become a Buddhist in U.P. after being a devout Catholic, then a Born Again Christian, then an agnostic, then an atheist, then a nihilist, and finally a Buddhist.
Now when I became a Buddhist, it was a different story. I was also sitting on a bench in U.P. That time I was reading “The Gnostic Gospels,” and worrying about my class with Randy David, when some students approached me and asked the same “Jesus Question.” I courteously informed them that I was Buddhist and they graciously left.
Why did they insist on debating with me when I was an atheist? Why did they leave me alone when I became a Buddhist? I think it has to do with having faith. Atheists have been unfairly labeled as people lacking in any form of faith. They are godless. They cannot be trusted. On the contrary, majority of my atheist friends are the most humane people that I know. True atheists put their faith in the human spirit and its resiliency. They love the faceless masses. They believe in human growth and human solidarity. They believe in scientific facts and explorations. If you do not believe in a powerful “Good God,” then you have to believe in something else. When an atheist does something good, he is doing it for the sake of goodness. He does not worry about heaven or hell. He cannot expect reward or punishment. A true atheist is intellectually and emotionally convinced why acting nobly is the right thing to do despite having no heavenly reward. Of course, an atheist may also have no remorse committing crimes but many Christians, Buddhists and Muslims also commit crimes. Being an atheist does not automatically mean that you are more likely to do “evil” things.
I always tell my friends who are alarmed about my new faith. I tell them, “You should not be concerned but you must celebrate. I became a better person when I became a Buddhist.” When I was a devout Christian, I was bigoted. At a young age, I was told to read the Bible and so I did. I believed that only Christians were saved and the rest of the millions of people around the world were wrong. I looked down on people who did not pray as inferior. I believed that any form of human artistic expression should be banned if they did not celebrate Jesus. I believed that gays and lesbians should be rectified and if they refuse, they should be prohibited from participating in society. They should just stay in their own ghetto. I believe that diseases such as HIV/AIDS were God’s punishments. I believed that women who take control of their bodies and espouse sexual freedom are whores. I believed that Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin were heretics. I believed that the Christian God sanctified all wars waged under the flag of Christianity. I saw nothing wrong with the massacre of many non-Christian native Filipinos during the Spanish period. If I had remained a Christian, I would have had different sets of friends, and perhaps, I might have even loathed some of you reading this post. To be honest, I was on my way to becoming a fanatical fundamentalist Bible-thumping person because I believed that every word in the Bible is the word of God and should be obeyed. I believed in instituting Christianity as the state religion, and the government should grant independence to Muslim Mindanao so they can have their own Islamic nation and we can do away with their paganism.
Bottom-line, I would give Christianity a bad name.
I have many Christian friends and they are some of the nicest and most open-minded individuals. They believed in a different kind of Jesus. They believed in the Jesus who talked to a Samaritan woman at the well. Some of you may know this simple story found in John 4: 1-40. The Samaritan woman was surprised this strange man would dare talk to her. In those days, men only talked to women if they were accompanied by a man, her father or her husband. Women in Jesus’ time were not individuals. They were like cattle. She was also a Samaritan, a group of people that were despised, and lastly, if Jesus had drunk from the woman’s jar, he would have been considered ceremonially unclean. But Jesus called out to the woman and asked for water. That is the Jesus that I know and love up to this day. He was a man who recognized your existence. He ignored the social norms of the day, and saw the woman not as a non-Jew, or a property of a man, or a creature in the margin. Jesus saw that she was a human being capable of giving him some assistance. Jesus needed the woman. With a simple gesture, Jesus showed her that she had worth. She existed.
Even though I am not a Christian anymore, Jesus still has a place in my heart. In fact, by becoming a Buddhist, I learned to love Jesus even more. What many people do not know is that Jesus and Buddha have so much in common. Some even speculated that the young Jesus travelled to India and learned about Buddhism.
Everyone in my family have different faiths. Some of us are Muslims; some are Christians, Catholics, a Buddhist and some are still searching. We get along well. We love each other even though sometimes we drive each other crazy.
I think we should not be concerned about debating which religion is the right one. Religions are run by people and I think God, the literal and figurative “God,” does not want us to put so much reliance on our religious leaders. I think faith is the key. Do you have faith and does your faith help you become a better person or does it encourage you to hate and disregard those who are different from you?
Buddha said, “In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.” That’s all. Thank you.
I hope I make it to the final 10. Buddhists have sense of humor too.
(The original title was "Your Buddhist, Really? Weh, Talaga?" First published in “The Chair” Blog)