WHAT I BELIEVE
My brother and I recently recollected our upbringing in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, during the Eisenhower era. Our grandparents made sure we got to church every Sunday, to a vast gothic cathedral built by Cleveland steel barons, where my two younger brothers and I sang in the children’s choir. On special occasions I got to sit beside my grandmother for one of Dr. Brown’s sermons. He never failed to tell at least one joke. Always when he told the joke, his voice would crack. So laughter was part of worship for me. And song.
There was the feel of my grandmother’s flowered silk dress, the look of her veiled hat perched on piled-up gray hair, the faint smell of rose water. Dr. Brown’s bald pate reflected in the stained-glass light of the pulpit. The unsettling boom of the huge pipe organ, with Mrs. Carl, my piano teacher, on the organ keyboard bringing “Holy, Holy, Holy” to life, everyone singing at the top of their voices, never failing to give me chills. “Lord God Almighty...” Certain Biblical quotations still have that effect on me, too.
“Wasn’t it great growing up in the church the way we did?” I said to my brother Doug.
“I hated every minute of it,” he replied. “All I wanted to do was escape. I wanted to wander around Shaker Lake, kicking stones, digging for worms, searching for minnows. The outdoors is my church.”
“Well, I replied, “the Dalai Lama says we don’t need religion. We only need to be kind to each other.”
Doug knows that I’m a mindfulness teacher and Buddhist minister. But that came out of a tragedy--only after three people in my first husband’s family were murdered. They were my sister-in-law–my daughters’ favorite aunt–and her two teenaged boys, my nephews. I was desperate. I turned to the Quakers with whom I’d been worshiping. They introduced me to a dharma teacher, an American nun. I took refuge with her. She taught me that the source of our salvation lies in what we feel is damning us. I believe that to be true. She also introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh, who would become my teacher, the zen master and peace activist who founded an order out of the killing fields of Vietnam.
After five years of daily mindfulness practice, I was able to forgive the boy who murdered three of my family. We sit a lot. My brother would feel fenced in. He’s living in Arizona now where he can stay outdoors and make frequent camping trips to the high country. What do I believe? I believe it is best for people to heed their spiritual and religious leadings. If we take the time to listen, we all know what calls to us. Doug and I are not all that different. While I sit zazen, my brother worships at the altar of the world.