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half enough

Spiritual journeys, done from home

I woke up at 6:07 a.m. last Friday morning to an NPR “Morning Edition” interview with Gillian Siple, a World Religions major and senior at Davidson College in North Carolina. She talked about her travels throughout Asia and Europe as she learned about various religions practiced in Thailand, China, India and France, and the deep spiritual awakening she experienced that challenged the Christian beliefs she was raised with at home in the United States.

Gillian grew up in a town in South Carolina where she attended a Presbyterian church with her “liberal” parents. Gillian said that her parents, who are also college professors, always encouraged her to question things. In her interview with Judy Woodruff, Gillian says that religion handed down by one’s parents isn’t necessarily the right thing for an individual, given the connectivity of the world today. Information on culture, religion, language, can be found on the internet, television and various other media. Religion therefore is a choice.

There is a rising trend in the practice of Eastern religion and exercise among young Americans (i.e. Buddhism and Yoga) in big cities like Los Angeles and New York City. I can be labeled as being a part of this trend for I love my Yoga class and am also an actively practicing Buddhist. While it may seem cliché on the surface, I know that I’m not just a statistic on a growing trend.

I grew up in an actively Buddhist household with a Japanese mother from Japan and a White American father (formerly Jewish) who was a product of the hippie era during the 1960s. I was born a cliché. My mother perfectly fit the stereotype of all Asian immigrants — that Asians are Buddhist. She started practicing Buddhism seriously on her own in Japan before moving to the United States. My father was 18 years old in 1969 living in Los Angeles when Buddhism was part of the hippie fad — he soon began his Buddhist practice and has continued ever since. Though my parents had no choice but to take me with them to Buddhist activities, religion was never forced on me. My parents always encouraged my brother and me to be honest, to always do what we knew and felt was right, and help others. There was never any religious dogma in them teaching us these universal values.

My spiritual journey really began in high school when my parents divorced. We moved several times, and as a result, I attended three different high schools. I was severely depressed and angry (and not on any medication) and found high school a living hell. For six months I skipped classes. I was at a vulnerable state but also very resistant to incorporating religion in my life. My mother and several family friends, however, encouraged me and guaranteed that I could change and things would change for the better by practicing Buddhism correctly. After many stubborn attempts at rejecting them, I finally gave Buddhism a shot – more so out of a desire to prove it and them wrong. I practiced sincerely for a period of time and immediately saw deep changes in my life. I became a completely different person and to this day, I still can’t fathom how much I’ve changed because of my Buddhist practice.

So what makes me different, an exception to the rest? I would say it’s because I take Buddhism seriously and am a committed practitioner. I learn more and deepen my faith as I continue. The benefits I’ve received with practicing Buddhism and doing Yoga regularly are irreversible, and I write this confidently. On a faith level, if it weren’t for my Buddhist practice I’m certain it would’ve taken me another ten or more years to get to the life-state I’m in now at 24. And as far as my health, I find doing Yoga more physically gratifying than any other exercise.

I think about why Eastern anything has become so trendy in the U.S. Watching lots of television in the 1980s through the mid-1990s, Buddhism and Yoga weren’t as “cool” as they are now. I remember always feeling insecure and embarrassed in elementary through high school for: 1) being the only non-Hispanic, half White half Japanese among my classmates and in my neighborhood and 2) being the only Buddhist. Later, in high school and college, I noticed the growing number of Yoga studios. Several of my friends began taking interest in various forms of Buddhism and many of them wanted to learn Japanese and visit Japan. Being Asian became cool.

The world is at our fingertips today with the advancements in technology and communications. Religion is indirectly impacted, growing further away from cultural and familial identification and becoming a sort of menu item offering several choices for all to try. Religion for me, because there are so many, forces me to take faith seriously. Although I haven’t heavily explored nor truly practiced other religions other than Buddhism, my religious preference is still completely based on my individual choice and continued exploration of Buddhism.

I was especially inspired by Gillian Siple’s experience abroad, how she immersed herself in cultures and religious practices that were once completely foreign to her and have now become a part of her identity. She said in her interview that when she returned home from her study abroad, her Christian faith became stronger. Now she considers herself a Christian pluralist (one who believes in God but also accepts the validity of other religions).

In a way, I felt an inkling of the spiritual journey and awakening Gillian experienced. Even though I haven’t traveled as extensively or practiced at a Buddhist monk’s monastery, Gillian’s story shook me into self-reflection, forcing me to ask myself what kind of life am I leading spiritually and how is it affecting others in my environment. It’s incredible how much people can learn from each other. The journey continues.

© 2007 Victoria Kraus

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"Half Enough" is Victoria's first regular column series. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Discover Nikkei.