I am of Chinese descent and grew up in a Buddhist background. There, story’s over.
Well, obviously there’s more to it than that. One’s ancestral beliefs can go a certain way, but life experience has a way of altering convictions. Yet I bring this up because religion, though it defines much of your outlook on life, you don’t really get to choose it do you? Your perception of the metaphysical world, that depends on what is most consistent with the way life unfolds. And while my ethnicity certainly inclined me towards Buddhism, something far more significant occurred to secure my faith. It is perhaps the single most defining moment of my life: my earliest memory. A memory…of death.
There are two ways the incident is told. One, the actual event as my parents saw it in which we drove off a cliff and were spared by a tree. The other, how my budding mind experienced it. The feeling of falling to my death, the world going black, and then just suddenly re-emerging conscious in a small town household. It wasn’t reincarnation…but it felt like it.
I imagine those of a different religious background would interpret a near-death experience in another way (with most of North America being Christian after all), but I doubt anyone survives a near-death experience without one’s perspective being greatly altered. It’s cliché to say a part of me died, but I often wonder who that person would have been like, for now I live as if I was already dead. When I was young, I was more solipsistic, as the only being I could feel was myself. Over time, my outlook shifted from I being the only one that mattered to everyone else being the only ones that matter as I sought a purpose outside the material realm in which I could never find fulfillment. And the ideals of Buddhism: detachment from material things, inner peace, compassion for all living beings, even the paradoxes resonated with me. And the Bodhisattva concept in particular, well, I never liked the idea of a permanent hell, or the principle of punitive punishment in general, so helping others reach enlightenment seemed a natural destiny.
So even at my most stubbornly anti-theistic phase, I never stopped believing in reincarnation. I couldn’t even call myself “atheist” by the strictest definition of the term since spirituality still underlaid my subconscious, though mostly I used the term as I do “socialist” primarily to assess people’s prejudices. Of course, I do link to a lot of atheist sites on the blog, since as I grew older, I noticed the overlap between Buddhism and the humanistic philosophy atheists tend to adhere to, and there’s a difference between atheist and anti-theist. So I guess in a way, I’m both since there is no God figure in Buddhism, and for that matter, all the Indian religions at least have nontheistic schools of thought. It’s more important to be spiritual in character than in words, and in that manner, I respect atheists just as I would anyone who wants to make a better world.
This being the West, Christians tend to have most of the fun seeing biblical references in movies and literature, every aspect of society in fact. And I too rejoice inside whenever I see Buddhist mythology and ideals incorporated into art. Even the Kung Fu Panda movies, despite the Western celebrity voice actors, have Chinese religion as an underlying motive and influence on the entire story. The second movie in particular was so obvious about it that it convinced me to adopt the Buddhist label once more after doubting myself for a while. It’s just nice to see the religious ideals introduced to the mainstream in such a way that merges East and West, and it’ll all the more exciting that this is reflected the third movie’s production staff.
So I enjoy reading up on Buddhist lore and expanding my perspective of the world. Science may explain the material world and it piques my endless curiosity on how things came to be, but the unfalsifiable abstract world is a whole other dimension to explore as well. Too often we see the world in terms of conflicting binaries, but with a little understanding, we find that they are not so different after all and the world becomes more harmonized and holistic. At the very least, Buddhism is definitely more than a hipster religion.