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Closet Buddhism

Question:

I am very new to the podcast and am currently downloading as many past shows as my computer will allow! I am also a new Zen Buddhist after researching the different secs. While I have yet to sit formally with a sangha as I am not near a Zen centre. I am moving to Calgary, Alberta for college this fall and have found Zen(!) there and plan to make myself known to the sangha there and absorb as much information and gain much experience to continue and further my training.

My situation is very common; I’m currently living with my parents in the lead up to starting school in a different city and have found myself missing my privacy (though my parents are not intrusive) but I find I practise in private and have not really ‘come out’ as a Buddhist. I’m finding it hard to practise behind closed doors and hide my alter. After watching my sister convert to Judaism from Christianity, I do not wish to cause emotional pain or suffering to my parents. I read the Buddha would not accept students without their parents’ permission, while I’ve taken a long time to ask, I’m wondering if Zen teachers uphold this and also should I just bite the bullet and talk to my family?

Answer:

Buddha had cultural reasons for asking for the parents’ permission (often the child was needed to support the family); you don’t have that restriction.

I can’t answer your question directly, as I don’t know your family. You stated that your sister’s conversion to Judaism caused some friction within the family, so I must assume that your conversion to Buddhism would too, and you are hoping to avoid the inevitable battle. I also assume that your parents are reasonably devout Christians, although it’s not really a requirement for them to be super-religious to have this argument.

Unlike god-based religions, there’s no judgmental God to strike you down if you deny him, so there is no mortal “danger” in keeping it from your parents if you choose to continue doing so. That being said, keeping secrets could damage your karma in the long term, and hiding the truth is going to cause you a certain amount of guilt and mental suffering. It’s almost certainly better to just be open with it, but the trick is in minimizing the impact the revelation will have.

If you simply walk in the front door and announce “Guess what? I’m converting to Buddhism!” they’re going to freak out. If it were me, I’d ease them into the idea slowly. Let them see you reading a book on Buddhism; maybe use it as an excuse to explain some things to them about what Buddhism is all about: “Hey, did you know that Buddhists believe ______?” Get them to the point where they are comfortable talking about the subject and subtly teach them a few of the basics. Lay the groundwork. Eventually, when the time is right, tell them you consider yourself a Buddhist.

12 comments to Closet Buddhism

  • alan

    I have a solution that will enhance the questioner’s practice and aviod conflict without lying. Here goes: everytime you want to tell someone you are a “buddhist” shut up, sit down and meditate. Forget labels and just practice. Go to a temple. Check it out. If you like it and it helps you or your practice keep going. does meditating make you a buddhist? Do you need an alter? Do you have to go to a temple? Regularly? Who cares? The more you practice the less you will care about labels (yours or other people’s).

  • I wouldn’t say I’m closeted – that implies shame or fear of what others think. I’m not either of those things.
    Then again, I don’t walk around with a button on my shirt that says “HI! I’m a Buddhist!” either.
    I think religion and faith are intensely personal, so it’s not something that comes up with people I don’t feel that I know really well.
    “Yes, I’d like a starter salad, the spinach enchiladas, and while we’re at it, did you know I’m a Buddhist?”
    It also helps to belong to a faith that is very passive in its expressions – I appreciate it very much for that – we’re not indocrinated to run all over the globe throwing our faith in other’s faces, demanding conversion.
    The irony in *demanding* that a person have faith is not lost on me.
    I chose to be Buddhist, it’s a part of who I am, but it’s not the first thing I talk about when I talk about myself.
    I don’t think that makes me closeted, just paticular about what I share with people I don’t know.

  • Jerry

    I confess to some discomfort at the answer provided here – it seems like a bit of subterfuge.

    I’d suggest considering the teachings on right speech and right effort: before bringing up the topic, consider if you’re telling the truth, speaking with compassion, and choosing the appropriate time. Also, do what you can to prevent harmful states from arising and to promote healthy states of interaction with your family.

  • gs

    I understand the desire to express yourself to your family, particularly if they have some kind of religious expectation of you. For example, my family is Catholic, and partakes in various Catholic rituals. My sister’s children go to Catholic schools, and my parents sent me and the rest of my siblings to Catholic school as well, and Saturday school (we are Eastern Europeans), in which everyone was expected to be a Christian as well – there’s a strong cultural connection here. So, even though I would consider myself a Buddhist (with a very western approach), I still accept my family’s traditions, though I do not plan to have my own children be a part of them (my significant other is non-religious).

    It took me a couple years to express my interest in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism to my family, and I would say that my siblings understand it better than my parents, which shouldn’t be too surprising. My father, who tends to be judgmental about a lot of things, probably doesn’t really grasp all too well why I have the interest, and “educating” him about it is difficult because I get the sense he just isn’t that interested in learning more. My mother had an adverse reaction at first (she actually used the word “cult”, worried that I was getting involved in something strange), but after she did her own research, realized it was for more “normal” than she had thought.

    To this day, though, the thing that I don’t discuss with most of my family is my agnosticism. I make no claims to the existence of gods, and I’m not interested in debating it, though I do want acceptance for my point of view. Mostly, I don’t see that bringing up this up has a great deal of value, however. I don’t seek to convert anyone to Buddhism who isn’t looking for a change in spiritual involvement.

  • Mike B

    I agree with this being a personal path (buddhism that is), and it is tough on the disclosure to others, who to tell and when, etc. I myself come from a traditional Catholic upbringing with the idea of not being a “Catholic” is a rebelious enough statement, let alone “I am buddhist”, or practice meditation, etc.
    Although I am actually going through the stage myself of telling others, the biggest approach I took was to be honest. Having books I am reading out, and not hiding an alter has become easier over time, and will often lead to inquiries, questions, or curiosity.
    For what its worth – stick it out. If the Dharma becomes your path, part of you, let it come out in conversation. The right times will present themselves…rather auspiciously!

  • Larry

    My advice is to not treat your exploration of Buddhism as if it were some sort of religious conversion. There is MUCH of value in Buddhism that can be obtained without ‘coming out’ as a Buddhist. Perhaps you ought to consider just going to the Zen center in Calgary to meditate and learn – then you can honestly tell your parents that you are interested in learning about meditation because it’s very good for you. In short, I guess you don’t have to be a Buddhist to explore Buddhism. 🙂

  • Lee

    I agree with Jerry … after years of studying I became a buddhist and began practicing. I thought everyone would be open and supportive; after all this is America 1990 and I was a top executive in a huge corporation. A Texas Corporation with founders of a different faith. Lost the job; got blackballed and learned I didn’t need to tell people about Buddhism. I still love talking about it; when people ask a couple of times. I take the admonition ‘to let the moss grow on my mouth’ seriously. And I am proud to be a buddhist but I don’t want to unnecessarily make others uncomfortable.

    Lee

  • I share the experiences and opinions of Mike B, Larry, and Lee. I grew up a strict Catholic, explored protestantism, then was left disillusioned. Over time I found that I started to figure things out in my life and my view of ‘reality’ in certain ways. These ways led to more control over my self and life and made sense. I was free from the religious bondage of rituals and incantations and for the first time in my life was having direct experience in life instead of fitting everything into preconceived ‘faith experiences’.

    After a year in Iraq, alone often, I was able to garner the courage to let the christian mind-programming go; fear of Hell and all. That is when I realized that I thought along the same lines as Buddha taught. I had ‘become’ Buddhist before any distinct conversion event.

    To me, Buddhist is something you become and not something you want to be, or convert to. And if I may say so, I disagree with your assertion that Buddhism and Christianity are compatible. (Not saying Christianity is bad, stating fact that Christianity repeatedly claims to be the only true way and those that have historically disagreed, even back to Moses’ day, have been met with a genocidal response.) That statement implies your lack of knowledge of both. So, understanding from my own similar experiences, where you may be on your path in life I would like to encourage you to pay no mind to the fear that binds. Find out what you believe and let it progress, it is not the same process as a christian/jewish/muslim conversion.

  • I’m sorry, after reading the post once again, I do not know where I thought you had said that Christianity and Buddhism were compatible. I have done a lot of reading lately and must have mixed up scenarios.

  • Dean,

    I didn’t say they were compatible, that was someone else in one of the comments, yet I do agree with the statement. There are limits, but if you WANT to practice both, it’s definitely possible to do so. If you see them as mutually exclusive or that one of them is the ONLY way, then it’s not going to work so well.

  • A lot of the answers above are quite credible. There are many ways to approach this. You just have to find what is ‘acceptable’ for your situation. It is not always easy when a family upholds different faiths. And like someone had already suggested, going to temples, chanting and meditating does not necessarily make one a Buddhist. The same goes true vice versa. If one is already carrying acts of a Buddhist, one doesn’t have to declare oneself as a Buddhist. You could be of another religion and acting like a Buddhist without knowing.

    Personally, nothing speaks louder than action. If you can lead by example in showing your improvements through your study of Buddhism, it would make it harder for others to reject it.

  • Kayla

    I would first like to say I hope you enjoy Calgary when you get here! Born and raised! Secondly, I was a closeted Buddhist for two years. When I started looking into Buddhism I read Noah Levin’s “Dharma Punx”, my mother saw me reading it one day and she lost it on me. So, after that incident I kept it to myself. Now that I am independant and living on my own my mother has come to accept my conversion and accepts me for who I am. Your parents may disapprove at first, but I believe acceptance will come with time. Hope that helps!

    Kayla (Cow Town Girl!)