Growing up, Buddhism had always been more familiar to me as a "trend": all of the celebrities were either
Scientologists or Buddhists or Jew-Bus (Jewish and Buddhist). People were
attracted to the Zen aspects of Buddhism -- meditation, yoga, burning incense,
and frequently being vegetarian -- because it was a healthy way of life,
especially in the city environment that I grew up in. It was an excuse for
people to drink green juices while wearing yoga pants during a 12-day detox
because they had just come from a Buddhist prayer-and-chant session at the
temple in the West Village. Parents of friends began going to Southeast Asia
and going on yoga retreats to various Buddhist centers and pagodas. Even my
neurotic, high-maintenance mom dappled in Buddhism, before realizing meditating
was simply not stimulating enough for her.
Coming from an American Jewish background, specifically from
New York City, I understand the Abrahamic religions but find no
connection to them. I find myself constantly going through the motions
of religious practice without being fully involved or truly
understanding what it is I am doing. Religion was not something people were deeply involved with where I grew up -- services were more of a
fashion show and an excuse to take a day off of work and for someone to
throw a dinner party or a break fast. I was raised Jewish because it is
seen as more of an ethnicity in my mother’s eyes
than a religion,
just a way to continue the tradition of being a Jew. Maybe this
sentiment comes from the Holocaust or the fact that our extended family
is Orthodox, but it meant that the extent of our Judaism meant attending
services on the high holidays and getting presents on Hanukkah as well
as always having a Christmas tree.
Anyway, back to Buddhism.
My interest in Buddhism really came into fruition in Cambodia. Between eating excessive amounts of rice, riding on the backs of countless motorcycles (sans helmet -- sorry, mom), and getting $6 massages, I was constantly surrounded by Buddhists and monks. Prior to flying to Cambodia, I had never been to Southeast Asia, nor had I ever been so immersed in Buddhist culture. I even lived on the same street as a Pagoda. Buddhism was ubiquitous.
About three days into my stay, I started noticing these red string bracelets, something that looked like my sister made me while at summer camp. Everyone, Khmer and foreign, had one, so, obviously, I had to get one too. (I’m a sucker for trends: red string bracelets, white euro sneakers, green juices, kale, a love of Kim K, etc. -- you get it.) This proved to be a pretty difficult endeavor, especially because I don't speak Khmer, I had no idea what they represented, and I was not friends with any monks.
I did a little investigating and figured out that the red string bracelets were Buddhist bracelets and that they symbolized a plethora of things, but mainly to serve as a reminder to show compassion to others. Buddhists follow the eight-fold path in an effort to reach Nirvana, or enlightenment.
I had to have it.
After pleading with some Khmer who worked at the guesthouse I was staying in, I convinced one of the workers to take me to a pagoda, introduce me to some monks, so I got a bracelet, and got my prayer on.
The first of two red bracelets.
Did I instantly feel like a Buddhist with my new red bracelet? No. Did it open my mind to Buddhism? Yes. Did I come home eager to learn more? Definitely. In fact, I am currently heading a semester-long research project on whether or not Buddhism is actually a religion.
Buddhism is a happy medium for me -- it's technically a religion but also a cultural lifestyle, allowing devotees the chance to be introspective. I also learned that it embodies most of my beliefs.
I believe in many things. For one, in the power of karma -- that if you do good things, good things will happen to you, and if you don't, bad things will happen to you. I believe that everything happens for a reason and in reincarnation (for example, my cat is my dad reincarnated). Karma and ideas of rebirth are central to Buddhism.
Now, you're probably thinking, "How typical. American girl goes to Cambodia, starts wearing elephant pants and red string bracelets like she is Julia Roberts in "Eat Pray Love." Did you also become a vegan and start doing yoga, Katie?"
No, but I did start burning incense and I did hang some Buddhist flags in my apartment, much to the chagrin of my roommate.
And, I still wear my red string bracelets.