Hey Internetter! Welcome back to another blog entry. Today I wanna talk about Buddhist guilt, specifically my experience with it when I was a teen. I'm thinking a lot about my teen days recently, I wonder if it's 'cause I'm getting old. That is a thing that happens eventually, to everyone. Soooo let's jump into the story.
Catholic guilt is a thing. Buddhist guilt is also a thing. To me, it’s a specific type of guilt that forms when you feel like you might have done something wrong, but can never be sure of it. The first time I experienced Buddhist guilt was when I tried Kung Fu in high school.
The class was in a basement. There were about fifteen or so students. No girls. I liked boys from afar, like how one would stare at baby giraffes at the zoo, so I was nervous at this sudden close proximity. But there was an unrelated, deeper layer to my nervousness. My Buddhist guilt.
My mom and I were low-key Buddhists. We were like the Catholics that never went to church. While we didn’t burn incense, we did follow the dharma loosely, trying to be good Buddhists while eating hot dogs because they were “what life presented to us at the moment”.
But this time, I was consumed with the guilt that I was possibly practicing another religion. Was Kung Fu another religion? I went back and forth a million times and couldn't make up my mind.
Kung Fu wasn’t technically a religion in the traditional sense, no one called themself a Kung Fu-ist. But when you think about it, it did have a whole bunch of similarities to a religion. You had "masters", and "disciples", and rules to obey (like not using your Kung Fu skills to show off), and most importantly, you believed in Qi (pronounced like "chee"). Qi was like The Force in Star Wars. You know when a skinny guy could pick up and toss a guy twice his weight? Or when a tiny kid can blow right through fifty pieces of wood? That’s Qi. Qi was about breathing deeply, letting go, and being one with the universe. There was a whole philosophy behind it, and that was where the line between sport and religion blurred for me.
I knew the Buddha was a huge softie. I mean, did you see his statue? Someone with a belly could never be a truly strict person, could he?
I liked Buddhism because it gave me a jolly fella who watched over me and a guideline without actual rules. Most of the “rules” were already what I agreed with: be a good person, don’t steal things, don’t kill things, etc.
When the rules got strict, like “Buddhists aren’t allowed to eat meat”, there was always an out, an exception story involving the Buddha himself. While travelling, the Buddha ate what ever food other people put in his begging bowl. Sometimes it was rice, sometimes it was a meat burrito. Not eating meat was grounded in the principle that you weren't to harm another life form. But travelling was an exception, so no biggie.*
Also, in Buddhism, it was common practice to say “shun qi zi ran” (pronounced ‘shun-chee-ze-ran’), which literally translated to “go with the flow”. I uttered "shun qi zi ran" any time I stepped on a bug by accident, or ate a hot dog, or forgot to do my homework.
However, among all these loose goosey exceptions, there was one absolute rule that even I knew I couldn't wiggle out of. You weren’t allowed to, under any circumstance, practice another religion.
Fourteen year old me understood that there would be consequences to violating this rule. But what were they? What exactly counted as another religion? Was I violating this rule? There weren’t stories where people started doing Kung Fu and then got sent straight to Buddhist hell. The Buddha was obviously too chill to do that. The worst case scenario would be that he'd disown me, that itself would be punishment enough. Probably. Right? Right?
Thanks to this inner crisis, Kung Fu class was a total blur.
The master demonstrated a set of movements. He thought they were simple enough for me to learn, highly overestimating my abilities. Having almost no coordination, I tumbled around, waved my arms and legs in random directions, barely keeping up. When that finished, I was instructed to run laps and do fake pushups. It was repetitive so I kept ruminating: What would Buddha do? Would he also join Kung Fu? Why'd I join anyway? Oh, right, 'cause I wanted to be cool. Oh boy, I am definitely getting punished for this aren't I...
Just when the class was about to finish and I was feeling relieved, the master made it known that I would be performing the set of movements I'd learned in front of everyone. WHAT. I was a very obedient kid, and at this point too exhausted to think straight, I nodded when he asked if I remembered the moves. I did not. And then all the boys stood in a line, cheering me on. I had no idea what I did, but if someone had filmed that performance, I’m positive it would've made it to one of Everything Is Terrible’s videos. These poor guys who had been practicing Kung Fu for years were stuck watching a person with barely any coordination do made up gibberish. I'm surprised they didn't laugh, maybe they were cringing so hard they couldn't, or in awe of the mere shamelessness I displayed. Anyway, I finished. The master said "Good job for finishing", and didn't make any other comments.
When I came home, I swallowed five steamed buns my mom had made for dinner. I spent the whole night trying not to replay that experience in my head, pondering if I had violated the law of the Buddhism, feeling guilty that I probably did, and wondering if I was still a Buddhist anymore. Would I be disowned? Would I be punished? And what about Kung Fu, was I allowed to go back? I didn’t know how I would get answers to all my questions. Praying for answers was not part of Buddhism.
It turns out, I did get an answer. I had a fever the very next day.
It turns out the Buddha was not too chill to punish people. Instead of sending you to hell, he gave you a fever. I vowed never to go back to Kung Fu again.
However, my other questions remained unanswered. To this day, I still don’t know if I can call myself a Buddhist. And I continue to hesitate joining any type of martial arts class, partly in fear of getting another fever, partly from the cringe of my first Kung Fu experience.
*I heard this story from my mom.
Yay! Thank you for making it to the end! I'm happy you read that. I hope it was fun. Do you have Buddhist guilt? Or Catholic guilt? Or Hindu guilt? I'd love to hear about it, so feel free to write me in the comments section, or send me an email if you're shy.
See ya next week!