My Metamorphosis from Christian caterpillar to Buddhist butterfly
By Patrick Taggart
Caterpillar: in reality I was a judgemental asshole
I am ashamed of the young man I was in 1985. I was an evangelical Christian and I remember chiding a friend for not being sufficiently joyful. Yes, she had lost her only brother, her soulmate, in a tragic accident quite some time before. But that was no excuse; Christians have a duty to praise God without ceasing and, anyway, it was years ago. At the time, I liked to think of myself as a humble and faithful servant of the Lord. In reality I was an insensitive and judgemental asshole.
Fast forward to 2003 and the deficiencies of my arrogant and inflexible view of the world were becoming all too obvious. My marriage was falling apart, and I was burdened by depression. I started to ask questions.
Had God really been guiding me throughout my life, as I’d thought? It certainly didn’t look like it. Why would God set belief as the bar for entry to Heaven? I mean, it’s not as if we often get to choose what we believe; for example, I can’t simply choose to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that I still have the luxurious head of curls that I had in my youth.
And then there was the perennial question: why does God allow so much suffering in the world? These were all important questions, at least to me. All the responses from Christians seemed more like facile attempts to explain difficulties away than genuine answers.
Pupa: I felt the intimations of liberation
And so began my slide from belief to agnosticism and eventual atheism. Despite being in my chrysalis at this stage, I already felt the first intimations of liberation. The constant struggle to defend the fortress of my Christian faith had been exhausting. The duty to spread the good news of Jesus to people who would spend eternity in Hell, if they didn’t believe it, had become too heavy a burden to bear. The conflict between trying to share God’s love while belonging to an organisation that was, at best, ambivalent on questions of equality, had created an internal tension that was not sustainable in the long term.
The universe became a dazzling phenomenon. It itself was difficult enough to believe in without the imposition of a creator God, who would have to be even more incredible. But the universe couldn’t have come into existence by pure accident. It had to have been created by God, my Christian friends would argue. Well, who made God then, I would counter? Nobody made God; he has always existed. Well then, why can’t the universe have always existed? These discussions would circle around infinitely, without hope of resolution. Far better, I thought, to marvel at reality and forget such religious nonsense.
I was in trouble, in freefall, and I realised that cold hard atheism did not have what I needed
Then in 2010 my life was overtaken by crisis. A relationship that had become one of the pillars of my life disintegrated. In addition, I was living with prostate cancer and the ravages of the treatments which, although successful, did not leave me unscathed. I was in trouble, in freefall, and I realised that cold hard atheism did not have what I needed to get through my troubles. Enter Buddhism. I started to read about it and liked what I read.
Butterfly: What appealed to me about Buddhism
First, as I understood him, the focus of the Buddha’s teaching was modest and pragmatic. Rather than bothering much with elaborate creation stories and cosmologies, he seemed to have focused on understanding and relieving human suffering.
Second, the impermanence and lack of essence that characterise all things are not seen as a tragedy. Instead, they open up a world of possibility.
Third, while not an atheist in the modern sense, the Buddha seemed to have regarded gods as having no role to play in overcoming suffering. Spiritual help is available without having to believe in anything supernatural.
as someone who loves nature, gardening, sea swimming and other outdoor pursuits, the earthiness of Buddhism appealed to me.
Fourth, the Buddha’s philosophy empowers us. He tells us that by living ethical and compassionate lives, studying the causes of suffering and happiness and training our minds in meditation, we can cultivate happiness for ourselves and others.
Fifth, as someone who loves nature, gardening, sea swimming and other outdoor pursuits, the earthiness of Buddhism appealed to me. One of the iconic images of the Buddha, depicted in many paintings and statues, is of him touching the earth with his right hand while in seated meditation at the moment of his awakening. Rather than waiting for salvation to descend from on high, it comes from the earth. Rather than yearning for some blissful afterlife, we are to create happiness here and now.
Sixth, the Buddha, rather than being some kind of saviour was an entirely human teacher. Even if he had never existed, the teachings ascribed to him did exist and, if they worked, well, that was good enough for me. In contrast, in all major forms of Christianity, Jesus is a saviour. Therefore, the historical facts of his life, which I doubted, really mattered.
My demons were gradually losing their power. I could confront them, unflinchingly, as I grew in confidence and awareness of my own resilience.
Granted, there are several schools of Buddhism, some of which are quite different from the form to which I was attracted. For example, some portray the Buddha as a demigod. Nevertheless, with my appetite whetted, I happily set them to one side. I knew that my friend and sometime climbing partner, Gary, attended Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast. I asked him what it was all about. Finding his answers rather unenlightening, I decided to check it out for myself.
First impressions were bewildering. The meditation sessions were very minimalist; they were silent, apart from the ringing of bells and the creaking of floorboards during painfully slow walking meditation. Long periods were spent motionless, in silence, staring at a wall. When we did move, our movements, characterised by much bowing, were circumscribed by an OCD-inducing choreography.
The teachings and practice are non-dogmatic and emphasise mindfulness, respect, compassion, peace, joy and engagement in the world.
The bizarre practice at the Zen Centre seemed at odds with the helpful things I was reading in Buddhist books. Gradually, though, I noticed something that surprised me. Despite my anguish, which had seemed unbearable, I found myself able to sit quietly staring at a wall, without the distractions of a screen, music, literature, food or drugs for the guts of an hour at a time. My demons were gradually losing their power. I could confront them unflinchingly as I grew in confidence and awareness of my own resilience.
Not long into my involvement with the Zen Centre, I crossed paths with people who practised Buddhism in the Plum Village Tradition of Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Although I had found the Zen Centre helpful, there were certain elements about the practice that had made me feel uneasy. It seemed very Japanese and, as someone brought up in the UK, I didn’t feel it was totally authentic for me personally. Also, I had reservations about what I perceived as the cold austerity and unnecessarily macho nature of the practice.
My wings are unfolded and I am learning to fly. I still have much to learn, but I feel I am happier and more accepting, peaceful and useful to others.
I found myself gravitating towards the local group (or Sangha), The Leaves of One Tree, practising in the Plum Village tradition. In this tradition, I found a practice more accessible to western people. The teachings and practice are non-dogmatic and emphasise mindfulness, respect, compassion, peace, joy and engagement in the world. The founder, Thich Nhat Hanh, is singularly impressive, with his long history of peace and environmental activism.
I have been involved in Buddhism now for over a decade. Occupying a place somewhere between philosophy and religion, my understanding of Buddhism seems to meet my needs. Like us all, I’ve had my ups and downs. My health has been problematic. My diagnosis with a heart condition and a rare form of blood cancer (myelofibrosis) led to my premature retirement in 2019. Fortunately, though, I seem to be fairly healthy for an ill person. Although walking any more than a short distance can be difficult, I still enjoy cycling and sea swimming. Of course, I can’t be sure how I’d be now if I’d never encountered Buddhism, but I credit it with helping me cope with whatever life has thrown at me. My wings are unfolded and I am learning to fly. I still have much to learn, but I feel I am happier and more accepting, peaceful and useful to others.
there are many Christians that I admire greatly, both well-known names like Father Richard Rohr and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as lesser-known people, such as my partner Anne
Looking back, I recognise that the form of Christianity I turned my back on all those years ago was just one among many. There is much diversity within Christendom and there are many Christians that I admire greatly, both well-known names like Father Richard Rohr and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as lesser-known people, such as my partner Anne, living lives of quiet service. But admiration does not equal belief and I still find the existence of any creator god, let alone the Christian God, inherently implausible. Whether right or wrong, belief in a creator god is a door that is locked to me.
I’ll end with a poem. As well as the Buddhist inspiration, it is also inspired by the Italo Calvino story, All at One Point. It is illustrated by my daughter and is an excerpt from our collection, A Heart Sutra.