My path to Buddhism – Thai food as a path to spiritual understanding

Told by Sigurd Henrichsen

November 2019
Just like many other events in life, my path to Buddhism was also a result of coincidences. I have been excited about Thai food ever since I had my first taste of it. Near where I live there are two Thai restaurants, and both have very nice owners and incredibly delicious food. My excitement with Thai cuisine would in time prove to become an indirect path to Buddhism. After the initial spur of interest arose, more profound assessments of my own values and beliefs followed. I will come back to that later.
As for myself, I was born in 1949, a time when Norway was undergoing a period of intense reconstruction after five long years of being occupied by German forces. I was born and grew up in Arendal, a small town in the sunny south of Norway. From September through May the city is dead quiet, but thrives with life and tourism from June to August.
My father was a sailor who spent 2-2.5 years at the time out on international seas, followed by 6 months vacation. When he was at sea, I became the young “man” of the house. All the while that I certainly missed having a father present, I don’t belittle the way my mother cared for me. Some sort of “compensation” came when on occasions we were allowed to visit him when his ship was at port in different European cities – Antwerp, Le Havre and Rouen became familiar places. My grandmother on my father’s side was French. Born in Istanbul, she had her childhood and teenage years in Paris. This is where she met my grandfather, who had his dentist practice there for a period of time. Herself being French and a Catholic, as the family and most others in France were, it was a given that children should be baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. This was also the case when my father got married. My mother was a protestant, and I was in turn baptized and raised as a Catholic. My grandfather on my mother’s side died before I was born, and I only have vague memories of my maternal grandmother.
My father was an ardent supporter of the local Catholic church, where he helped out in many ways and went to mass every Sunday morning. The first service began at 8 AM, and the next started at 11. He always joined the 8 o’clock mass in order to get the most out of the day. He never pressured me directly to join, he only encouraged me to come, but didn’t rebuke me for not coming. Beyond this there was little religious upbringing in my childhood home. As was common in other perishes, we would regularly welcome the pastor to our home when my father was there. When he was away at sea the pastor was all but absent, and we never saw the priest from my mother’s congregation. I was seldom home during these visits, and if I was, I would not be included in the conversations, beyond the formal initial pleasantries. I had a clear impression that my presence was not needed beyond this extent. For my primary education, I went to a Catholic school, and on the secondary level I was exempt from Religion as a school subject because I got classes with the Catholic priest.
As time went by, my connection with and interest for Christianity became smaller and smaller, until a point where it was practically non-existent. Perhaps some of if was due to a lack of interest and a sort of indifference, but partly it was also a skepticism and doubt that began to arise toward the content of the Christian religions. Other religions was something we’d learned about only peripherally at school. I’d like to underline that what I write here by no means reflects a lack of respect towards people who adheres to the Christian faith. It is to be taken only as a way of expressing how I arrived at a different world view.
Some central questions arose in me. Firstly, the story of creation came into question. It does not take much reading to discover that the biblical account is impossible. And if that was incorrect, then what about the image of God itself? The Holy Trinity? Heaven and Hell? What about religions in general? How did they appear, and why? Humanity has always had different sets of gods, be it the Christian God, Norse, Greek, Roman or other gods that people have placed their faith in.
Why did they at all appear? Was it an expression of the need for support when people couldn’t understand something, or feared something, like a natural phenomenon, an illness, malformations of the body or crops gone bad? Could such events be a form of divine retribution, or were they just what they were, without being rooted in any religion? And why did one normally only hear about punishment when something had happened, but never about rewards from the gods? Why were people severely punished for sins and wrongdoings, but rarely were they rewarded or had their prayers answered?? Reward as a concept was something that occurred after death, most often by coming to heaven or other beautiful places.
But if a benevolent Christian God would exist, how could He then permit millions of deaths of people in wars, famines, diseases and natural disasters? The answer to these questions was often that “God has a plan with everything”. To me this statement was a part of why I became very doubtful and after some time, indifferent towards the Christian faith. In addition to that, counting in all the humans who were killed in God’s name during the crusades, the wars of religion, the inquisition, colonization and other events where God’s wrath is taken as an excuse or justification to punish or convert people to the “right” faith. At some point in history it was possible to buy the mercy of God through paying a sum of money to the church, or be forgiven for one’s sins on the deathbed and still be admitted to heaven and the glory of God.
I also questioned some of the foundational pillars of the faith; the image of God, resurrection and ascension. Newly born babies (of Christians) go to heaven if they die before they are baptized. Otherwise is it not a prerequisite to be baptized and faithful in order to get to go to heaven? A pit-stop on the way to heaven could be a stay in purgatory, the other alternative is hell.
But where then do members of other religions go? And what about agnostics, or atheists? Do they go straight to hell, or does something else happen to them? Are each of them blessed in their own faith?
In this way I doubted myself into a non-believing relationship with the Christian religion. You are born, you live and do as best you can, then you die. Whatever happens after death, I didn’t relate to. It all peaked when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. In the course of only six months he went from being an able-bodied man into a skeleton draped in skin. A pair of empty, frightened eyes that was loosing the spark of vitality day by day, and pain despise the heavy medication. In the end he had to be spoon fed, and given liquid through an intravenous tube. Where was God at that time? Could a benevolent God allow for humans to suffer in this way, or is it just the godless course of nature that plays out when someone is out of luck in life?
As for myself, I went through education, work, marriage and children, and the years went by. With a smile one could quote the poet: “Never did I know that all these days that came and went was life itself”. But so it was, and after some years I found myself in the Vestby municipality. After some years had passed I chose to leave the marriage, and I moved to Fredrikstad, where I had my office. I was lucky enough to experience the dessert of life – grandchildren.
Some years passed before things suddenly came to a halt. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer on 12.12.2012, 12 o’clock. I’ll probably remember that point in time for the rest of my life. I was among the few lucky ones who were diagnosed early, had surgery and avoided further spread of the cancer. However, the process involves many rounds with both fear of the unknown as well as optimism at the prospect of a positive result.
Now it’s time to connect the dots and return to the introduction of this little story: Coincidence would have it that there are two restaurants with Thai food right next to where I live. I started going there regularly, and befriended the people who run these places. I knew nothing about Buddhism. Then one day the owner of one of the restaurants called and asked if I could drive some Buddhist monks back to their monastery in Skiptvet after they had been on their alms round in Sarpsborg and Fredrikstad. The driver who was supposed to take them had fallen ill. At the time of writing this it must be 2,5 years ago. That became my first meeting with Buddhist monks. They were driven back to the monastery, and I was offered a cup of tea before my return. I liked the place. Even though it looks like a normal farmhouse, the unique atmosphere of peace and quiet can be felt soon enough. I also found some books on Buddhism, which I tried to learn from. Gradually my interest for this religion increased, and I became interested in meditation too. I began to visit the monastery regularly every Sunday, and on other special occasions, as well as some times when I felt the need.
There was good opportunity for good conversations and discussions with the residents there. Now, meditation has become a part of my daily routine. It’s a time when I can lower my shoulders and settle down. In contrast to what I heard and read about others, I haven’t had any experiences or visions when I meditate. But I do feel a great peace afterwards.
As time went by I felt more and more connected to the religion and the place. It lead me to eventually resign my membership in the Catholic church and convert to Buddhism. I feel that this has been very meaningful to me. The monastery and those who live there also mean a lot to me. The Buddhist middle- way without extremes or fanaticism is also important.
My path to Buddhism happened on its own accord. There has never been any pressure to make me convert. Neither has it been required to be a Buddhist in order to visit the monastery. I think all who come there will feel welcome and feel the quiet, welcoming and inclusive atmosphere that the place and the people who live there embodies.
After some time I had the wish to connect even more to Buddhism, and asked if I could take the five precepts, a central set of vows for lay practitioners of Buddhism. I was invited to do so, and in a simple way I try to live by these. Both this and the sense of community that I experience at the monastery in Skiptvet are important to me. I have a lot to learn about Buddhism. And I have a place where I can always go for advice and counseling. So far I’m only scratching the surface it seems. Some times when I hear other ask questions to the monks, it strikes me how little I actually know. But that’s the way it goes. Knowledge and experience are built layer by layer. For my own part I am certain that I have reached the spiritual place I want to be, and I’m eagerly anticipating what is to come.
Together with Ajahn Kalyano, the abbot of Lokuttara Vihara (Skiptvet Buddhist Monastery)
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