Buddhism as Performance Art

By Rev. Jon Turner

On Tuesday, March 16, 1999, I was at work as a software engineer.  At 11:51 AM, I was at my desk eating lunch.  I should have been coding but instead I was shopping on Amazon.  It was at that moment that I purchased my first book on Buddhism.  It was Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das.

I had been struggling with the death of my father for the past six years and was still searching for something that might help.  I had tried many different things prior but none of them seemed to stick.  Success, family, running and playing guitar were only momentary diversions.  I think buying this book showed how desperate I was.  Protestant Christian computer programmers don’t usually buy books on Buddhism.  At the time, I don’t think I had a very high opinion of religion but I was running out of options.

In the first couple of chapters of this book, the message was clear.  I was the cause of my own problems.  When things did not go the way I had imagined them then I was unhappy.  The world around me was fine but I was not.  I realized then that I had finally found the answer to my struggles.  I became Buddhist not because of the power of the arguments within this book but because I recognized the truth of this book within myself.  It is not a matter of conversion but of self-recognition.

            I continued reading.  In April, a book on Theravada Buddhism and in May a book on Zen Buddhism.  This is very common.  These are the three main Buddhist traditions represented in America: Tibetan, Thereavadan and Zen Buddhism.  Then on Sunday, May 16, 1999, our family attended our first OCBC Family Service.  I had told the kids to get up early because we were going somewhere special. It was the first Sunday after Mother's Day.  My daughter Emily enjoyed our new adventure but to this day she still says that she thought we were going to Disneyland. 

The next Sunday Linda signed us up as members.  She was worried about me and wanted to make a commitment to this new approach to our lives.  I thought of OCBC membership in the same way I thought of a Costco membership.  I now had to attend for a year so that our dues would not go to waste.  Like a gym membership, I was now required to workout.

It is interesting that I came to Buddhism through books.  This is a very common approach for someone raised as a Protestant Christian.  I was taught beliefs were foundational.  If we believe in the correct things then our behavior can be corrected.  So over the next four years I read many, many books on Buddhism.  This scholarly approach was the way I thought one learned about religion.  I understood Buddhism but it was not really touching my heart.  Dr. Lisa Grumbach at the Institute of Buddhist Studies warned me that many people who only read about Buddhism often do one of two things.  They either drop out or they begin to appreciate Buddhism as a practice.  I could see how reading about Buddhism isn’t really the same as practicing Buddhism.  It would be like reading about dancing but having never really having danced.  I was “learning about Buddhism” but not really “learning from Buddhism.”[1] 

After that advice I began to appreciate Buddhism not merely as a school of thought or a set of beliefs but also as an activity that transforms how we think and live.  It is something we do rather than something we merely believe in.  In this sense, Buddhism is much more like Yoga or dance than a philosophical discourse. 

Often times I get difficult questions when I teach.  Many times the questions are difficult for the right reasons but sometimes they are not.  When they are not it is due to this bias towards beliefs rather than activities.  Whenever I get such a question, I first ask myself if such a question would make sense to a Yoga instructor or to a ballerina.  For example, what do you have to believe in to be a Buddhist?  Well what do you have to believe in to be a ballerina?  You merely have to have confidence in the path and practice.  In this way one becomes a dancer.  One is different from the experience. 

Yogis and ballerinas are also not asked moral and ethical questions or where do they go when they die.  Obviously, this is because they are not considered to be practicing a religion.  But in the West, Buddhism has been.  We think about religions much differently than we do yoga and ballet.  I try to be very careful about this now.  I no longer think of Buddhism in the same way I think about Protestant Christianity.  In doing so I have been able to appreciate Buddhism on its own terms. 

Now I try to “use Buddhism as something with which to think, rather than only as something to think about.[2]  Dr. Grumbach was correct.  Buddhism only addressed my struggles when it became something I felt rather than something that I merely thought about.  Transformation occurs through the activity of the Buddha rather than through our calculations.  In this sense, I think Buddhism is much more like Yoga and dance.  We are profoundly transformed through this activity we call Buddhism.                   

In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner

[1] Three Dimensions of Buddhist Study by B. Alan Wallace

[2] Buddhist Theology? by Rita M. Gross