In the beginning……
I was born into a nominally Catholic family in Singapore. My parents loved me and instructed me in the habits of life that they felt were most important to cultivate. I grew up learning to be hardworking, persistent, as well as goal-focused in my education, hobbies, and career aspirations. Religion and spirituality were never on that list of important things to do while growing up. I came to learn about the Catholic faith only through the ‘compulsory’ Catechism classes I had to attend leading up to Confirmation, and later on through volunteering in the local parish’s music ministry. I found the things I learnt through the Catholic Church ‘nice’ and ‘plausible’, but never regraded them as important compared to the other aspirations I had in life.
When I turned 21, I moved from Singapore to Perth to pursue my university degree in medicine. Soon after, my worldview was seized by various secular forces and reshaped to a considerable extent. Thus, after a year in university, I came to regard Catholicism as dubious and identified myself as agnostic. Many secular forces were at work here, but I believe a significant contributor was the over-emphasis in medicine on the need for observable, repeatable, and credible evidence to justify a belief in something. God’s existence was just not scientifically evident.
Thus I lived the next three years of my life as a non-believer, making life choices that were often sinful and selfish in nature, and pursuing ambitions that left me feeling empty despite accomplishing them. By a ‘lingering trace’ of God’s grace, I was still attending mass on a regular basis, but only because I was able to secure a part-time position as a chapel organist. God was still the last thing on my mind as I drifted on in the sea of relativism; dark and purposeless. In hindsight, those were probably the emptiest days of my life.
When I turned 26, a breakdown in my romantic relationship led me to seek advice from a friend who was Buddhist. He then introduced me to the world of Buddhism through the Buddhist Society of WA. I soon discovered the wise and insightful teachings of Ajahn Brahm, a Buddhist monk and the abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine WA, and began listening to his dharma (teaching) on a regular basis.
The experience was like a breath of fresh air. For once, I felt like there was purpose in my life again. Buddhism taught me so many pearls of wisdom (mindfulness, self-compassion and meditation to name a few) and the renewed direction it gave my life was so powerful that I soon became an evangelist for Buddhism, preaching what I had learnt to both family and friends alike and encouraging them to take up Buddhism as a way of life.
In addition to providing a philosophical framework to make sense of the suffering and emptiness I was experiencing, Buddhism was also non-threatening at its core (compare this to the many threatening claims made by Jesus). A central belief among most Buddhists is that all religions set out to teach the same universal principles of ‘goodness and love’, hence all religions are equal and acceptable so long as each belief system is not taken to the extreme. Hence, in my attempt to ‘convert’ people to Buddhism, I had the opportunity to exchange religious views with different people, and to show them that all these different beliefs could essentially be condensed into one ‘universal religion’.
Life as a practising Buddhist was comfortable and liberating. With mindfulness and meditation, many of the anxieties and frustrations I used to struggle with melted away. I was also able to let go of my selfish ambitions and to look outside of myself toward the sufferings of others. Buddhism truly made me a better and happier person. I was contented and probably would have remained Buddhist for the rest of my life, except that God had bigger plans for me.
A year after becoming Buddhist, I bumped into an old friend unexpectedly. This friend was Father J, who had just been ordained a Catholic priest one month ago. This led to the both of us spending time over lunch together. We had a lot to catch up with each other, and I was excited to share with him my insights into the universal truths of Buddhism that I had discovered.
Father J listened very attentively as I described my entire journey into Buddhism and how I came to discover the universal truths that harmonised all religions together. When I had finished speaking however, to my surprise he actively disagreed with all the points I had raised (everyone else I had previously spoken to would just agree with the similarities I pointed out). For the first time, I was hearing someone tell me that prayer is NOT mindfulness, salvation is NOT nirvana, and that Christ is NOT just another Buddha. Father J also gave me clear, logical explanations as to why my beliefs were fundamentally inconsistent, and left me to ponder the little seeds of the Word that he had just planted into my mind.
After several days of pensive reflection, burning inconsistencies in Buddhism started to surface in my mind. Firstly, how could one hold to both a universal code of goodness as well as to moral relativism? Secondly, if the endpoint of Buddhism is nirvana (which is likened to a state of nothingness, extinguishment, being ‘blown out’ like a candle, etc), what then would be the meaning and purpose of all the realness and actuality of our existence? These two questions together with many other inconsistencies, as well as a lack of authoritative teaching on what Buddhists are to believe, eventually led me to abandon Buddhism as a belief system altogether.
God’s grace shines through……
Shortly after, I experienced a defining moment that most people would call the breakthrough of grace in one’s conversion experience. It happened to me that fateful Sunday morning while I was attending mass. There came a moment during the offertory when the choir sang a hymn with the following chorus:
You are the voice of the living God, calling us now to live in your love, to be children of God once again.
Right there and then something beyond words happened. It was like the veil was lifted off my eyes, and suddenly I could see. Truth shone through like a light breaking through the darkness, and everything made sense. It was not a physical-sensory experience, but rather it was an experience that came from within the very center of my being. I was ‘struck down’, and the next moment I found myself breaking into tears of consolation. Suddenly I knew God was present there, and calling me home.
I cried throughout the rest of the mass, but I remember feeling so renewed for the entire week. It felt like I had been offered a glimpse into the truth and goodness I was searching for, the meaning and purpose of life, the reason for this world’s existence, as well as the final destination that all things are tending towards; all has its fulfillment in the first mover, Truth itself, Goodness itself, the alpha and the omega; that we call GOD.
Since then, my life has changed completely. I have now re-orientated my entire life around the centrality of Christ, such that every ambition I have, every article I write, every piece of music I play, and every moment I live, has its purpose and fulfillment in Christ. As for Buddhism; I have since disregarded all the elements of Buddhism that are incompatible with Christianity such as relativism and nihilism. However, I still make use of the Buddhist spiritual exercises of mindfulness and meditation, but always as a means to center my mind more fully around Christ.
Chris is currently a full-time employee working for the South Metropolitan Health Service. He is also a part-time musician with a special interest in the genres of jazz and latin, and has performed professionally with several bands around Perth and Singapore. He spends his free time reading topics related to philosophy and theology, and enjoys meeting people from a variety of different religious (or non-religious) backgrounds for a healthy and cheerful conversation about faith.