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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 35-37

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Seeking Emancipation through Engagement:
One Nichiren Buddhist's Approach to Practice

Bill Aiken

I was born and raised Roman Catholic, which meant attending Catholic schools, first in the local parish schools and later at a private academy in suburban Philadelphia. As a child I was serious about my religion. I served as an altar boy and had serious thoughts about becoming a priest.

That was until the mid-1960s, when my hormones took over, my voice changed, and I converted to hedonism. I hadn't so much turned against my Catholic upbringing as I was temporarily distracted from it.

It was when I went away to college that the religious questions began to resurface. Friends and classmates wanted to know what I believed in, and I really didn't know. The old form of Catholicism, with its stern, patriarchal vision of God, didn't seem to fit anymore. But the mystery remained as a palpable presence, and it seemed to require an answer. Was I an atheist? That seemed so negative. How about an agnostic? Possibly. They seemed to believe in something, even if they didn't know what it was. That seemed about right for the moment.

My first encounter with Buddhism came during that freshman year at Penn State University in the fall of 1968. While attending a rather psychedelic party, a friend asked me if I knew anything about Buddhism. Replying that I didn't, I asked what Buddhism had to say for itself. My friend said that it spoke of the oneness and interrelatedness of everything. All I can say is that at that particular moment this made sense to me and started me on what would at first be a pretty casual exploration of Buddhism.

But it would be in the bedridden summer of 1970, while recovering from a lifestyle-inflicted illness, that I started to reflect on my life in earnest and began to read as though Buddhism had something to say directly to me. More books by Alan Watts led to D. T. Suzuki, which in turn led to collections of sutras and finally to Phillip Kapleau and the Three Pillars of Zen. This would be my guide for the next year as I struggled to bring focus to my mind and my life.

Being the poor and struggling student that I was, I could not afford the cost of a [End Page 35] retreat or sesshin training. So I struggled as well as I could with a combination of self-instruction and whatever I could learn from those who did attend these sessions.

I should say at this point that while I may have had a highly developed religious sense, I never wanted to become a religious virtuoso or a renunciate. From the depths of my adolescent angst and confusion, I longed for an awakening, but I had conditions. And chief among them was that I would not be pried apart from my life as I knew it. The quietude of the monastery and hours of prayer or meditation held absolutely no appeal for me. If I were going to attain enlightenment it would have to be in Times Square (before Disney took it over). And so, through my daily stumbling efforts at zazen, I began struggling to bring about this awakening.

So this is where I was spiritually when on a late summer day in 1971, a pleasant though somewhat scattered young woman approached me on the streets of downtown Philadelphia, invited me to a Buddhist meeting, and introduced me to the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The first meeting I attended was a rather large one on the campus of Columbia University in NewYork. Everyone seemed pleasant enough, but the meeting seemed more like a pep rally than a serious discussion about the profound teachings of the Buddha. When the main speaker finally took the stage, I found it nearly impossible to understand his broken English. So I'm afraid that I don't remember a single word he...


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