I’ve been dreading having to write this post since it was first assigned at the start of the semester. Despite efforts to convince myself that it’s just a blog post and there are way scarier things in life, it still felt like an insurmountable task. Why? Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the fact that I’m a Jamaican-born Canadian of Chinese ethnicity, who was raised Catholic and is not currently practicing a religion. What could I possibly have to say about Buddhism in the U.S?
Furthermore, my interest in studying Buddhism has been mainly to gain an intellectual understanding of the teachings and practices for how to live and to inform my work as a future mental health practitioner. That, in a nutshell, is what drew me to the University of the West and to this class. Truth be told, I feel like a bit of an imposter in the company of people who seem to know much more about about this topic, many with direct experience as practicing Buddhists and/or Buddhist scholars. At times I’ve had to remind myself that I’m here to learn and should expect to feel challenged and even a little intimidated. What I didn’t expect, was to be thrown into a deeply personal exploration of my own religious/spiritual identity.
It started with a class discussion on Buddhism coming to the West by way of migrant workers from Asia. The topic of ancestor worship came up and it got me thinking about how little I actually knew of my ancestors. All I can say for sure is that they were Hakka Chinese and left China to settle in Jamaica over three generations ago, where they opened and ran businesses selling everything from hardware supplies to groceries. But I knew nothing about how they lived, their customs, religious beliefs or practices. As I contemplated this, I became aware of a longing to know, connect with, and honor them. The only problem was, I didn’t know how.
It became clear to me then that the religion I had grown up with was not the same religion that was practiced by my ancestors back in China. What was that religion? I wondered. How was it practiced? What were their beliefs? Did they have rituals?
With these and other questions swimming around in my head, I called my parents on the break, hoping they’d be able to shed some light on the big dark void I saw when I thought of our family history. They weren’t able to say for sure, but believed that my ancestors in China practiced some form of Chinese folk religion.
Then came the next question, which I’m a little ashamed to say I’d never thought to ask before, “How then, did we become Catholic?” Well as it turns out, when my grandparents were born, in order to get a birth certificate one needed to have a “recognized” religion. I wasn’t quite sure what to think in that moment but I was saddened by the idea that the transmission of religious traditions over so many generations came to an abrupt end because of a legal requirement.
There were more questions, addressed to my father, “Did they pass on any beliefs or rituals? Do you remember anything of their practices?” I was desperately hoping he’d say “yes”, willing to settle for whatever fragmented, faded memories he could conjure up.
He had none.
Since that day I’ve called home to Canada at least half a dozen times with even more questions, hoping with increasing desperation to make some kind of spiritual connection to the past and feeling disappointed as I came up empty each time.
An internet search into the history of Chinese people in Jamaica provided some explanation for why many of them abandoned their traditional belief systems and “took up” a form of Christianity. Many first generation Chinese parents came from poor families and recognized the importance of education as a primary vehicle for a better life for their children. They also realized that they stood a better chance of success if they were highly acculturated, so they were reluctant to pass on any cultural or religious practices to the next generation. A conversion of convenience was further necessitated by the desire for children to attend English-speaking schools, the majority of which were Christian-based.
My parents, like their parents, adopted Catholic practices and did their best to pass these onto their children. We attended mass most Sundays and my brother and I went to Catholic schools. Sure, there were rituals. We were baptized and received all of the sacraments one often does when growing up as a Catholic child. My parents didn’t play a very active part in our religious upbringing and relied heavily on the school system to educate us on and instil religious practices and beliefs.
Thinking back on it now, it seemed like there was something missing. Perhaps it was the meaning behind the religious practices that my parents were unable to provide. In fact, I recall when I was a teenager being asked by my mother if I believed in God and Heaven and Hell and all that. She was looking for answers from me. Over the years as I’d searched for a religious identity, it seemed so too did my parents. There was a time when they took a greater interest than I did in the books on Buddhism that I brought home. Not long ago my mother expressed a desire to learn more about meditation and we visited a Tibetan meditation center together. My father recently engaged me in a discussion about Buddhist and Christian views on evolution. I can’t speak for them, but I hypothesize that my inability to feel connected to the religion I was raised with is due in part to spiritual rootlessness and a lack of real meaning.
For most of my life, I’ve felt free to explore and create my own religious and/or spiritual identity. The journey seems to have brought me full circle and sparked a longing to connect with my Chinese roots. I don’t know if I‘ll ever be able to make that spiritual connection with my past, which seems to have been lost generations ago. For now, I continue to remind myself that I am everything that came before me and try to connect with and honor my ancestors through everything I do.
Post by Stephanie