Recently a lovely new non-religious friend of mine asked me, “How do you come to believe what you believe?” What a great question! Well the truth is, I was a very reluctant Buddhist at first. Allow me to take you back to 1983 and share with you how I first bumped into Buddhism. I had just arrived in Paris after leaving home at the age of 17, with grand ideas to work my way across Europe. On my first night I checked into the Hotel de Nesle, a cheap and bohemian Latin Quarter hostel.
There I soon made friends with a New Yorker called Ken. The deal was that he would show me round Paris and I would teach him French. Little did I know that this chance encounter would change the course of my whole life. Ken had taken a shine to a young Finnish lady called Mina. Mina was renting a room from a French lady in the 19th arrondissement, in those days one of the less salubrious parts of the capital. Mina was heading home to Helsinki and the French lady was hosting a leaving party. Both Ken and I were invited. The French lady now had a spare room to rent. A spare room to rent in an apartment with a south-facing balcony where attractive young people came to party. The French lady with a room to rent also had a strange altar in her lounge with a scroll in it. She was called Christiane and she was a Buddhist. We decided not to let her weird religion put us off, so Ken and I moved in a couple of days later.
Destiny and Dominoes
So… the Hotel de Nesle, American Ken, his Finnish love-interest, her leaving party, my first sight of a Buddhist altar, a cheap spare room to rent… Did this ‘series of dominoes’ fall in some pre-ordained sequence? Was it fate? Cosmic coincidence? Karma? At the time, none of the above. I had absolutely no plans to become a Buddhist, despite Christiane’s earnest endeavours. Firstly, I was a devout (if increasingly sceptical) Catholic. And secondly, although I found the philosophy intriguing, the practice was just a bit too ‘far out’. My first impressions were that Christiane’s scroll (her Gohonzon) and its central mantra – Nam Myoho Renge Kyo – were at best bizarre and at worst sinister.
I spent ages debating with her about our different religions. All my philosophical points made perfect sense to me, though somewhere deep inside I did feel moved by her heart, by her compassion and also by her anger about the injustices of the world in her disadvantaged corner of Paris. I was profoundly sceptical and yet I was also seeking, wanting answers to those age-old questions – what’s it all about, and why am I here?
Thanking the spoon
For all my ability to argue, this wise and perceptive lady could sense that I was struggling. She saw straight through my intellectual arrogance to all the confusion and insecurity it hid. By this stage I still had no job, was down to my last few Francs and was in a relationship with a beautiful artist who was dabbling in Buddhism to beat her heroin addiction. I was on the verge of giving up and heading back to England. It was at this point that Christiane shared the Buddhist guidance about a spoon stirring up ‘karmic sediment’ from the depths of our lives. Her point was that if you take ownership of your problems, if you ‘thank the spoon’ rather than resenting what is happening to you, you can become the architect of your future, developing the inner resources to transform your life.
And so, a few days later, on 3 July, after more fruitless attempts to find work, I began to chant. But when I quickly found a job (as a chef in an Italian take-away) and when my girlfriend beat drugs, I dismissed both as mere coincidences. I then went to university in Scotland for the next two years, where I completely forgot about Buddhism. My earnest practice only began when I returned to Paris in 1985 for a teaching placement and noticed that most of the Buddhists who came to the flat had moved forwards in their lives, whereas I had stopped growing and was unhappy.
They reported a whole range of tangible and intangible benefits from their spiritual practice. One had a happier marriage, while another had unearthed the courage to leave a violent relationship. One had a better-paid job, another had found a new career with less money but more meaning. One had overcome a major health challenge, and another had discovered her artistic talent, realised she was gay and made a whole new set of friends. Some had rediscovered a sense of hope or freedom or confidence, others were kinder, less angry, more energetic, less anxious… and so on. And some were still struggling a lot, but with more hope and determination, thanks to the warm encouragement of their fellow Buddhists.
I began to think there might be something in this mantra after all. That it might provide a powerful and practical tool for living. And so began the 29-year adventure that has brought me to this point and to this post. So, to answer my friend’s question above, why do I practise Buddhism? Quite simply, because it works. As Nichiren teaches us: “Nothing is more certain than actual proof.” And as he writes elsewhere: “Therefore, I say to you, my disciples, try practising as the Lotus Sutra teaches, exerting yourselves without begrudging your lives! Test the truth of Buddhism now!”
If you are a Buddhist, please feel free to share below – how did you start chanting? And what made you continue?
PS. I will write another post soon about ‘Buddhism and actual proof’.