Shedding the Romantic Idea of a Buddhist Follower


In this guest blog post, Pema Sherpa discusses her experience with Buddhism in her native Nepal. She says that while not every Buddhist follower or monk is corrupt and there are still authentic practitioners, she has given up the tradition and follows a spiritual path instead. She now lives in Bend, Oregon.

I grew up in Nepal, which is a small Himalayan country in Southeast Asia, similar in shape, yet smaller, than California. Although there are 82 different ethnic groups with their own cultures and languages, Hinduism and Buddhism are the two main religions with approximately 60% Hindu, 30% Buddhist, and 10% others. Hindus and Buddhists live in harmony by respecting, welcoming, and celebrating each other’s religions and festivals. Growing up in a Buddhist family, I was fascinated and moved by Buddhism as this religion’s main teaching is to be compassionate to each other including all living beings and to live in harmony in this world.

As I grew older however, I started observing and questionings things that didn’t align with Buddha’s teaching. My romantic idea of a Buddhist follower was someone full of compassion who practiced Buddha’s teaching in their daily lives by living simply and by loving and respecting each other. However, in reality, I found Buddhist followers are simply like most any other human beings. They seek comfort, have a tendency to be motivated by greed and the desire to get ahead even if it means going against Buddha’s teaching. People are treated according to what they have versus who they are as a person. Their status in society highly depends on how much wealth a person has accumulated not caring whether money came from selling drugs, cheating, or ripping off a vulnerable person. All that matters is the amount of wealth achieved. Kind and compassionate people not only have very little value in the society, but they are also the victims of almost everyone because kindness is seen as a weakness in Nepal. Buddhists are cultured to believe that if one donates money to the monastery or Rimpoche (Buddhist priest), one’s sins will be washed away and they will be forgiven for their wrong-doing. As far as I am concerned, this is not what Buddha found out from his enlightenment.

Both my parents practiced Buddhism and brought me up in this religion. The core teaching of the Buddha is one of the most aligned with my heart. I attribute this to how my parents lived their lives. They always helped anyone they possibly could. It didn’t matter if the person was of a different caste, came from a high or low class family, or had a disability. When I was seven years old, my parents lost their son (my brother) who was only eight years old. For the next three years they both fell into a deep depression and had a hard time even dealing with the chores of daily life. But they did not shy away from helping others even during this devastating time, instead helping others gave them strength and purpose. I was very impressed with how they were able to practice their values even during this difficult time. My father taught me a lesson on one of our hikes that still puts me in awe on how his compassion went beyond the surface level. It was about 101 degrees and we were hiking up a very steep hill with sweat dripping off of our foreheads. We came across a huge log in the middle of the hike. It irritated me that my dad stopped to remove the log that was lying across the path. Frowning, I said, “Dad, why bother to remove the log in this excruciating heat, let’s just leave.” His response was, “Pema, don’t ever be selfish. What if a blind person is walking on this trail? What if an old and sick person needs to use this path? What if a person is crossing this path at night during an emergency? These people could trip on this log and fall off the cliff and die. Removing this log will only take five minutes. We could save someone’s life by doing this.” At that moment it didn’t mean much to me, but now I am impressed at how he could walk the talk in real life. My dad wasn’t a serious Buddhist follower. He didn’t attend the monastery regularly and he didn’t do the chanting, but he applied the Buddhist teaching in his life by always practicing kindness. My mom was more into the practices of the religion, but she was also able to apply Buddha’s teaching in her daily life. She always helped others with an open heart and never reacted to others with rudeness or insults. She believed that anger was not good for us. She said that we need to “put anger under our feet and let it go just like our footprints.” What I found interesting is that even though both my parents practiced kindness, they got taken advantage of left and right. This was when I came to the realization that most other Buddhist followers aren’t like my parents. I observed that some Buddhists are like any other human being, doing what they need to do to get ahead, to earn status in their society and feel good about themselves by washing away their sins by donating money to the monastery or Rimpoche. Later, they proudly brag about the “good” they have done to the less fortunate.

Although I respect the Buddhism practiced and know that there are true Buddhist followers like my parents, I find that most Buddhists these days place importance on monetary value. Buddhist followers in Nepal are simply trained to accept and follow the monks’ advice without questioning it. The more money you offer to the Rimpoche or monastery, the bigger ceremony you can perform. The more money you spend, the more Karma you gain. When someone offers a big sum of money, he or she is permitted to get VIP treatment in the monastery revealing their high status in society.  I also find that the Buddhist religion is very sexist. The Rimpoche is always a male, never a female. Reincarnation is for boys not girls. And I still don’t understand why they preach in a different language (Latin vs English) that most followers don’t understand. Is it so that no one can question? Asking a question in this culture is seen as a show of disrespect to the Rimpoche. If you are the youngest one, you just keep quiet and follow the order and I got to be that lucky charm.
In a Buddhist community, there is a huge social economical pressure when someone dies. Buddhist funerals and ceremonies cost around seven to ten thousand US dollars, when the average salary is about $50 per month. I feel that our culture, society, and mythical Buddhist monks take advantage of the vulnerability of this situation during the most devastating time of losing a loved one. They say “to help the departed soul to go to the heaven or to lighten their path, you must perform this and that, and the more money you can spend on the ceremony or give to the monk or monastery, the merrier the departed soul’s life will be in his/her next life. If you don’t perform these rituals, then the departed soul will have a hard time finding a path to nirvana and will struggle in his/her next life.” I recently lost my mom and was in Nepal for her ceremony. What monks and society demanded was shocking to me. Monks wanted to have “Signature Brand” whisky after the dinner. My relatives told me that people would talk ill of me if I didn’t offer seven varieties of delicacy to serve over 600 people who would attend the ceremony. I was very surprised that no one talked about my mom or even had any interest in listening when I wanted to say something about her. However, if you don’t do what is expected, society will look down upon you and bring shame to your family for the rest of their lives. I am sure that Buddha never advocated this. Our cultures teaches us to be quiet about any injustice and they expect us to just deal with it. Complaining would mean a sign of weakness, questioning means not being respectful. I strongly believe that it is time to be honest with ourselves and talk about uncomfortable issues, while bringing awareness to our society of what is right and wrong, and continue to practice what’s good, modify what’s not in order to preserve the pure essence of our religion and to create a better world for the future generation. This is why I wrote this essay to talk about the reality of what occurs in a Buddhist country.  Although, there are still handful authentic and pure Buddhist practitioners whom I respect highly, it seems corruption has taken place in our tradition and Buddhist religion. Therefore, I voluntarily have decided to leave this religion and to become a free spiritual person where I can practice what feels good to me, view everyone equally while treating each other with respect.




About the Author Karen Garst


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