Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life

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In his poem “64 Elmgrove,” Mark Halliday says,

I am not at all a Hindu, I’ve never been a Hindu,

I want to keep things—

(from Tasker Street, University of Massachusetts Press, 1992)

Yup, me too. That’s about how I feel about becoming Buddhist on the eve of starting this project: that I may not be cut out for this. Because I, too, badly like to hold on to the way things were.

This is the sum of my experience with Buddhism to date:

  1. I have meditated.
  2. I have been to the San Francisco Zen Center once, and to Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin twice.
  3. I have a CD of Pema Chödrön’s that I like to listen to (oddly, when I’m cleaning house).
  4. In college I took a course called “Buddhism in Contemporary Poetry” and loved it. We read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, as well as work by Gary Snyder and Jane Hirshfield—and, come to think of it, Mark Halliday.
  5. So I have read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and some Buddhist poetry.
  6. I have attempted to understand and emulate the Buddhist concept of shunyata. I wrote a short story called “Shunyata” and a poem called “Windfall,” both about shunyata.
  7. I think that’s it.


And what, then, do I really know of Buddhism? Here are my perceptions:

  1. It is a Godless faith.
  2. One of its main tenets is the idea of not being attached to outcome. Perhaps incorrectly, I call this “Zen detachment.”
  3. Zen detachment is the part that appeals to me most.
  4. Zen is only one branch of Buddhism; there are many.
  5. Pema Chödrön is a Tibetan Buddhist, actually.
  6. You don’t have to meditate with your eyes closed. Sometimes it is preferable not to.
  7. The awesome round meditation cushion is called a zafu.
  8. Shunyata can be translated as “emptiness,” but that is only half the story.


As for mindfulness, well. I do live in Northern California, after all. I’ve visited more than one energy healer. I read tarot cards for fun sometimes, I notice magic around me, I believe in ghosts. At a different time in my life, I went to yoga three times a week—and acupuncture and therapy, too. But with a kid, who has the time? Or the money?

Eerily, I saw a shaman once, a year ago. A South African bush medicine man. Among other terrifying things, he told me that my life really needed a spiritual practice, and for a month or two afterwards I managed a morning yoga routine. I built an altar that I never prayed on. But his words have haunted me, surprised as I was to hear them.

Mindfulness and spirituality are not new to me. Sticking with them is new to me.

My plan, at this stage, is loose (can you tell?). As are my definitions: I know mindfulness and Buddhism are not the same, though I do know that mindfulness is an important part of Buddhism. And I know one can be mindful without being Buddhist.

But back to the plan. Like all experiments, I arrive with certain goals and a hypothesis, but I don’t know what the outcome will be. I am not attached to the outcome (see? I’m halfway there!). An imperative to meditate every day would undoubtedly feel like one more thing I could fail to do, and beat myself up about.

So here goes: I plan to spend the next—six months? Or year?—learning to have a spiritual practice. Learning to breathe. Attempting to define mindfulness. Reading Buddhist texts. Slowing down. Practicing detachment and shunyata. Meditating, perhaps. And living in the moment. For me, “becoming” is the key word: it implies a process, an evolution, a state of metamorphosis.

Something to watch happen.