Growing up, I was raised to be a good Catholic boy. Both my parents were Catholic and my father, a second-generation Italian, had been an altar boy. Although I avoided that particular family tradition I dutifully attended Sunday school from an early age up until my Confirmation. After being confirmed I went to church only when I was forced to - on Christmas and Easter.
In high school I developed a lust for spirituality: I wanted answers to life's deeper questions. The first spiritual book that began to answer questions for me was an introductory book about Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki. I had a penchant for the abstract and I loved the way Zen tricked me into seeing things the way Picasso tricks one into seeing a face from different angles. The ox-herder drawings done by Suzuki were one of my favorite parts of the book. They illustrated the cycle of life in a simple way. I remember carrying the paperback in my back pocket wherever I went.
But it wasn't until I landed in Vietnam, in the war, that I really felt an urgent need for spiritual understanding. The war raised unanswerable questions that circled round and round in my head. Why did one guy end up with a bullet in his chest while the soldier next to him walked away unscathed? Why did a Vietcong mortar shell flatten a hut just minutes after a soldier had walked out of it? The questions were unanswerable - at least by me - perhaps because I was too close to them. After all, I was the soldier. In light of my new experiences the knowledge from my catechism class seemed to be nothing more than a thin spiritual string frayed and about to break. I yearned for something stronger.
It was on my R&R in Bangkok that I first learned of traditional Buddhism.
Oddly, the first lessons of spirituality that I could really hold onto were delivered not by a priest or monk but by a wonderful girl of 18 named Pensi who was just a few years younger than me. Maybe because she was a bar girl and not a teacher there was no possibility of spiritual pride delivered along with her message, so I hung on her every word. She had such a deep-seated trust in her higher power that when she talked about it I felt it in myself. Her truth was like nothing I'd heard about in Catholic Church; her god was real and tangible, as much a part of her as her hand or her foot. I met Pensi at a time when I needed something to believe in because after my week in Bangkok I faced another six months in the infantry, in a place where many of my friends had already been killed or badly wounded.
Pensi and I toured the sights of Bangkok totally at ease with each other.
She took me to many beautiful Buddhist temples including one that inhabited its own small island. We arrived by water taxi to the sight of glistening white walls imbedded with thousands of pieces of colored glass sparkling in the sun. After removing our shoes we entered the cool dark temple. Coming from the bright light outside we couldn t see anything until our eyes adjusted to the dark. There behind veils of incense smoke were rows of orange-robed monks chanting at the feet of a giant gold statue of Buddha. The sights and sounds and fragrance of sandalwood came as close to a picture of heaven as I'd ever imagined.
Everywhere we went in the city Pensi and I held hands. I noticed that Thai men and women alike shook their heads when we passed by on the sidewalk.
It was obvious to anyone that, with my military haircut, I was a GI and Pensi in her short dress and eye makeup was a bar girl. Pensi explained to me that a bar girl was considered lower than dirt. I later learned how brave she was to walk through the city holding hands with a GI. Girls were often attacked for doing just that. Although being judged so harshly made me want to strike back, Pensi remained unshaken.
When I asked her why the people's derision didn't bother her she told me, "I have Buddha." Over the years that followed I never forgot Pensi's words, but it wasn't until recently that I've come to have a fuller understanding of them. Buddha is a loving, kind and compassionate god, not at all like the fearful and blaming god I'd created in my mind as a boy.
This past May 12th was Vesakha Puja the celebration of Buddha's birth, enlightenment and final passing, all celebrated on the same day, the full moon in May. I spent the evening beneath the moon on a wooden platform in the forest at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley. I sat with the other visitors behind the 12 resident monks listening to Ajahn Amaro, Co-abbot of the monastery, speak about the transitory nature of life. In his talk, Ajahn referred to the short life of a boy named Todd Tansuhaj, the youngest monk ever to be ordained at the monastery. Todd, whose ordination name was Piyasilo, had died just two weeks earlier from complications from a rare blood disease after his second bone marrow transplant had failed.
We were privileged to have filmed Todd during his ordination for our movie about Abhayagiri. His is, without a doubt, the most unforgettable segment in the film. Ajahn Amaro in his lucid and enlightening talk used Todd's short life as an example of the transitory state of existence here on earth. Whether we live for 50, 70 or 80 years, the cycle is still the same - we are born, we live and we die.
Abhayagiri is celebrating its 10th Birthday on June 3 and 4. The monastery, in its forest setting, is a wonderful place to spend some time. Being there affords anyone an opportunity to gain some timeless knowledge - knowledge that we are in no way obligated to accept. As Ajahn Amaro says, "take what you want and leave the rest behind."
Buddha's teachings offer the clearest explanation of life on this planet I've ever heard. His words are so succinct and so practical that Buddhism might just as easily be taken as a science as a religion. So anyone can visit Abhayagiri and still keep his or her own religious beliefs in tact while enjoying a bit of Buddhist philosophy.
During the ceremony at the monastery, while the full moon was pulled by an invisible string up over "Fearless Mountain" (which is the meaning of Abhayagiri in the ancient Pali language) Ajahn Amaro's words cut through the thin veil of time answering an ageless question. His words reminded us that we don't need to think in terms of religion, Catholic, Buddhist or otherwise. What is important, beneath all the labels, is to be the best person we can be, if it is for 60, 70 or 80 years, or like Todd Tansuhaj, for only 11.
It is wonderful to recognize that bright shining truth within us, the truth we recognize in each other, that might be called compassion or loving-kindness. The truth needs no religious label; it matters little what we call it. Whatever it is called, we know it when we feel it because it's in all our hearts. As I remember from Sunday school, Jesus told us, "the kingdom of heaven is within." And Buddha said, "the unconditioned state alone is real, permanent, changeless."
I'm sure young Todd found it. And it's what Pensi meant when she said, "I have Buddha."