After I graduated highschool, I immediately entered University. I chose Early Modern European History as my major, and Political Science as my minor. I soon dropped Political Science, when it became clear to me that my personal philosophies often clashed with mainstream politics. I took Philosophy and Religion and Culture as a double minor instead.
I was lucky enough to have formed friendships with several very intelligent Philosophy majors, who challenged me on several levels. They were much better read than myself, although for my school work I quickly caught up since all my classes required of me to read classical philosophy and literature. Philosophy required intimate knowledge of the tenets. History required of me to place the tenets within the current political, religious and cultural context.
On another level, all of these Philosophy majors were Atheists. They did not, could not, allow me to use religious frameworks around arguments because they are not based around reason, but around faith and personal experience. I was forced to acknowledge that the religious arguments I had been acquiring since childhood were not built upon solid ground, and were in no way unique. I saw how the religious myths I had grown up with were similar threads of a great web of religious ideas that had grown up all over the globe, but I didn’t know why. My God had the same attributes of other gods. My morality tales were respun from previous morality tales. My Religion and Culture studies confirmed this for me. I read, in cultural myth after cultural myth, the same creation and flood stories, mores and ethics, justifications and rituals. Perhaps this meant that all religions held truths? I had no concept back then of religion as a natural byproduct of human evolution.
At this point, I think the best description of my religious beliefs were Agnostic. I simply just did not know anymore. I didn’t really understand what Agnosticism meant, and figured that the odds were 50/50 for or against God. However, I meant the Christian God of the Bible. I still had not branched out beyond the deity I knew. I didn’t understand that I should have been questioning Religion itself, not the specific God I had been worshiping since I was a child. So, I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to be able to really appreciate the finer nuances of philosophy at this stage and it’s no wonder I didn’t get very far, or come to any personal conclusions. It didn’t rid of me the burning desire to find richness and meaning in life within the confines of a spiritual framework. The idea of abandoning religion itself didn’t occur to me, so I searched around within the religions to find one that better defined my beliefs. I read about every religion and spiritual philosophy I was even briefly introduced to. I wanted to know everything about every religion. Like the fabled Russian medieval princes, I went shopping for the “right religion”. Unlike the Russian princes, I didn’t find one. All I did was learn more about them, and saw in all of them something that spoke to me. Rather than understanding that it’s natural for humanity to accrue similar stories because we are hardwired to do so, I just became confused and drawn to them all.
I graduated University three years later, more educated about History, Philosophy, Religion and Culture. Personally, I was still searching for the spiritual side of life I had read about in books and had formerly known within Christianity.
I also graduated with $25,000 worth of bank loans, that had funded this education. I put my name out on the internet, seeking an international teaching position. A recruiter from South Korea called and weeks later, I was on a plane to Seoul.
I had already spent four months backpacking and camping around Europe (Spain, France and Czech) so I knew travel was something I really wanted to do. I acclimatize to other cultures well, and settled into Korea right away. I immediately began to study more about Buddhism, and even attended Buddhist ceremonies and learned chants and rituals. I traveled the entire country, visiting shrines, temples and holy sites. I had a University gig, which meant 3 months of work followed by 3 weeks of vacation time, for each trimester. I traveled to other Buddhist countries – Japan, China, Thailand, Cambodia. I studied their branches of Buddhism. I studied the walls of the great temple of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and the Palace in Bangkok. Carvings and paintings of Hindu gods infused with Buddhist mythology. It was a side of Buddhism I had not learned about in school, which tended to focus on traditional Buddhism of the Near East. I learned about Confucian doctrine and Zen principles. I traveled to the Philippines, and learned more about colonialism and the impact of missionary work on a traditional culture. I was learning as much in the world, from the world, from it’s living history, as I had learned theoretically from books.
So it’s natural I think that I began to appreciate Buddhist philosophy. And not just because I was young and impressionable. Buddhism itself is incredibly complex and beautiful. It is embracing, and positive despite it’s reputation as being negative in it’s portrayal of life and death. I think it’s very misunderstood, especially if you don’t venture beyond the “All life is suffering” principle. Buddhism is accused of being everything from Pantheist, to Atheistic, to Pagan, to Monotheistic with the confusion surrounding the reverence of the Buddha. I appreciated the emphasis on the wholeness of life, the acceptance of the cycle of life and death, and (since I had already been a vegetarian for 4 years before moving to South Korea) the way animals and all life forms were treated with respect rather than dominated over. A Christian often finds this concept very difficult to understand, just as the concept of a heliocentric universe was difficult to accept. It’s such a completely different way of viewing one’s place in the world, and too humbling.
I was not a Buddhist, to be clear. I just found much to admire, and found I already had embraced some of it’s principles in my own life. Just as equally, I could have claimed Paganism or Panentheism as dominating influences in my life.
As I write this now, I wonder if my life really has been so concerned with spirituality and religion as much as it seems. And I realize that, yes it has. At every stage of my life, I’ve been concerned with these matters and never stopped learning and searching. I wonder why that is, and I think it was my early introduction to Christianity and the huge role it played, which is pretty ironic. I think if I had grown up without religion, I would not be nearly so interested in it or how it influences people, much less myself.
I had arrived in Korea in the summer of 1999. In 2002, I met and married a Greek American engineer, and that changed the course of my life. When he was transferred out of South Korea in 2004, I went with him and closed a chapter in my life, in more ways than one. I was no longer on a single journey through life. But after 5 years in Asia, my spiritual journey was not over. We left Korea for Croatia, and I was thrown back into the Christian world hard and fast. But as the saying goes, you take your mind with you wherever you go. So this time, my participation was very different.