Art by Vivian Hsia
Transparency Item: The Perspectives section of the Graphic is comprised of articles based on opinion. This is the opinion and perspective of the writer.
I was raised by a Roman Catholic mother and a Conservative Jewish father, both immigrants to the United States. As a first generation American in these religions, I formed my perspective of the world and religion by their influence. Growing up Conservative Jewish and Roman Catholic and discovering Buddhism all helped me form my spirituality and faith for the better.
I distinctly remember attending weekly Hebrew school on Wednesdays, going to church choir practice on Friday afternoons, then to Shabbat service Saturdays, followed by Kiddush, then singing at a Catholic church Sunday.
This may seem like a lot, but as a child, it was just what my siblings and I did. I have never met anyone who consistently stayed with both religions throughout their childhood. Usually one parent or their family will influence the other parent’s denomination to take a back seat and have their child raised primarily in one religion, or define themselves more strongly with one.
Many might be confused with how I was able to define this in my own mind or even have the capacity to understand being a part of two religions during childhood, when connecting to one religion can already be a great feat.
I was baptized as a newborn, Bat Mitzvahed and confirmed in both religions. In the year before my Bat Mitzvah, where I practiced weekly and planned festivities, my rabbi explained to me the importance of defining what I believe. Having known me as a child and my religious backgrounds, he could see I was starting to notice the contradictions between the religions. He helped me form connections between them and realize they aren’t so different in reality — they are more similar than some people choose to believe.
At this moment I realized to perform in my Bat Mitzvah service and truly understand the meaning of becoming a woman, I would need to put more time into my Jewish faith, and my family did the same. Hebrew school and Bat Mitzvah practice started to take up a lot of my free time, and I no longer participated in the church choir. I soon found myself only attending church for special holidays or when I visited my mother’s side of the family in Italy once a year.
When people asked me which religion I “actually am” I still considered myself both Catholic and Jewish. A couple of years after being confirmed in Judaism and attending church occasionally, my faith started to be transformed.
When I was about 16 years old, I adventured to Bhutan and India with National Geographic on a student expedition for photography and cultural learning. I traveled on my own to India and Bhutan and met up with the other students and instructors three days later. On my first day in Bhutan, I visited a monastery and throughout the trip visited several more. I was taken aback by how beautiful, colorful and intricate the designs of the temples were.
One day, we met with an experienced monk who had devoted his life to meditation, prayer and serving his community. We sipped warm herbal tea and discussed the meaning of happiness in one’s life.
This monk whose only possessions were the robe and sandals he was wearing told us of how joyful and content his life truly was, despite material things or objects. Buddhist teaching views life and death as a continuum, believing that consciousness –– the spirit –– continues after death and may be reborn. The monk told us death can be an opportunity for liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
This completely changed the way I viewed the afterlife. I read these stories in the Bible and in the Torah that I would “be saved,” or guaranteed safe passage, into the afterlife or heaven. Buddhism was teaching me what I do in this life matters more in the here and now. I learned to not to worry about what may come next and not stress on every mistake and how it will affect my future.
The main principles of this belief system are karma, rebirth and impermanence. Buddhists believe life is full of suffering, but that suffering can be overcome by attaining enlightenment.
In Buddhism, there are four noble truths: “the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering,” according to PBS. More simply put, suffering exists — it has a cause, it has an end and it has a cause to bring about its end.
Through Christianity, I was taught the story of Jesus dying for our sins, a teaching that connects a lot of people to their faith. For me, the stories about Jesus and the stories in the Old Testament are just stories. I liked reading them and I think they teach us important lessons that I still value, but I don’t fully embody them in my life. These lessons don’t speak to me in a way that Buddhism or my newfound spirituality does.
I have found a way to take what moves me in each religion and define my own understanding of faith. Essentially, I believe there is a power within us and around us constantly, moving and evolving — not necessarily a religious figure. It is up to us to find inner peace, balance and harmony to live a life that connects us to the earth and each other.
Bhutan is most known for their Gross National Happiness that places people, not material wealth, at the center of its developmental values. Bhutan is currently No. 1 in the world happiness index in Asia and No. 8 in the world, according to OneWorld Education. During my time in Bhutan, I spoke with many Bhutanese people and they all consistently shared how they are happy and continue to feel happy.
“There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” they said on this trip.
Many had different meanings for how it related to their lives, but I take it to mean there is no path to happiness, happiness is the path.
Everything you need and want can be discovered within and around us, and what is meant to enter your life is for a purpose that individually serves you.
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