A lapsed Catholic and one-time atheist’s journey to Buddhism
By Emily Kluver
8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 9
Chris Geissler lets his door shut quietly behind him as he walks out into the dark hallway. He is careful not to wake any of his hall mates as he heads down the stairs and out the door into the cold morning mist.
The world is silent. And though he professes to be tired, everything he does is done with energy. He walks quickly, talks quickly, thinks quickly. Everything is done quickly, in great contrast with the languid quality of morning.
He sits down on a bench at the train station and waits. By 8:15 a.m. the train arrives and Geissler escapes SwarthmoreCollege’s sleeping campus, bound for the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia.
Geissler, a 22-year-old senior at Swarthmore College, was not raised in the Buddhist faith tradition. The New Jersey native
was not technically raised in any religion at all.
His mother, raised Catholic, has never liked religion and tends to stay away. Geissler describes his father, raised Episcopalian, as someone who has a vague belief in God but does not think about it much.
“I was baptized Catholic,” Geissler says. “When I was born my mother was vaguely afraid of limbo and my grandmother on that side wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
As a child, Geissler attended what he affectionately calls, “The Hippie School,” until middle school when, against his parents’ wishes, he decided to attend a Catholic School for grades seven through 12.
Growing up, Geissler knew very little about religion. He says, “When I was about to start the Catholic school, I finally realized, wait a minute. People actually believe this stuff? On a factual level?”
Geissler jokes that his early moral instruction was rooted in Thomas the tank engine. “That was my first religion,” he says, only half in jest.
4 p.m. Wednesday, December 5
Geissler tries his hand at explaining Buddhism. He gets progressively more animated as he fills the blackboard in an empty classroom with strange terms like Gelugpa, Nyingma, and Padmasambhava.
“In tantric practice you visualize yourself as the deity, in whatever context, you are the deity,” Geissler says, crouching on a desk chair and gesturing enthusiastically. “This is seen as extremely efficacious because you are taking the goal as the path, but it is actually very dangerous because if you aren’t ready for it or you do it wrong, this is something that will cause huge inflation of ego and pride.”
As the lesson gets more and more complicated, Geissler’s speed increases as though these teachings were second nature.
But Buddhism is complicated, especially for people in the West who only get glimpses of what Buddhism is and how it is practiced.
Geissler tries to get down to the basics. He explains that Buddhism was founded based on the teachings of the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who is believed to have lived and taught sometime around the 5th century B.C.
Tibetan Buddhism is a sect of Buddhism that is known in the West due to the prominence of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of all Tibetan Buddhists. The majority of people practicing this particular branch of Buddhism live in Tibet, India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Geissler’s personal journey with Buddhism began around the middle of high school when he decided that he needed something to attach himself to.
“I was jealous of these folks who had this connection, this group identification,” says Geissler.
But at the time, he found the idea of following God preposterous and identification with atheism purposeless. That’s when he started going to the Ethical Culture Society Center near his home in Maplewood, N.J. The group was founded on a religion of ethics. Geissler appreciated that they had a congregation, even if he was the youngest member by several decades.
As time went on, Geissler began reading about Buddhism. His religious development was influenced in large part by two Buddhists, a massage therapist and a psychotherapist, who were members of the Ethical Culture Society.
“In Catholic school, I came in an atheist and left a Buddhist,” Geissler says smiling. “I think a lot of my interest in religion as a practitioner is a result of growing up in dialogue with the Catholic Church.”
8:50 a.m. Sunday December 9
As he gets off the train, Geissler checks his watch. Reading Terminal market will not be open for another 10 minutes so he takes a seat at his bench, the one he always waits at before he grabs breakfast.
The meal does not vary much. He gets his usual bagel with cream cheese and this week he stops for a coffee because he was up past 2 a.m. the previous night and does not want to fall asleep during meditation.
There is plenty of time before services start at 10 a.m. so he sits and eats and talks about the bagel place he used to frequent. The place had brought in H&H Bagels from New York until the company closed while he was studying abroad in India the previous semester.
Actually, he notes that a lot of things changed during his semester away, himself included.
Geissler does not like to talk about how his semester in India affected him because he thinks it sounds trite. But he notes that after he returned from an eight-day retreat during his spring break, his classmates noticed that he was calmer.
“I’m so much more stable,” Geissler says shaking his head. “I’m a lot happier now. I think a lot of it is perspective, being somewhere different.”
9:44 a.m. Sunday December 9
Geissler tugs on his jacket, pushes the hood over his dark hair, and steps out into the rain. He can be hard to keep up with as he darts between people walking down North 10th street in Chinatown. As he hurries along, he talks about the city, recent changes, and development plans like a true resident.
“Coming here every week makes me feel like a part of the city,” Geissler says. “I love Philadelphia and I don’t know how often I would get to come here if I didn’t go to the Buddhist Center.”
After he crosses Vine Street and Chinatown fades away, Geissler slips into a rare silence. Light rain echoes, highlighting the emptiness of the street, in contrast with the bustle of Chinatown.
There is something very solitary about his routine.
Even when friends tag along, Geissler’s purpose is not shared, they are not going for the same reasons and he admits that sometimes it feels very lonely.
“I like taking people with me but I find it a little draining,” Geissler says wiping raindrops off of his wireframe glasses. “I’m usually alone.”
When he turns off of Spring Garden Street and onto North Percy, he points out the Center. There is no sign, just a set of plain white doors and a string of prayer flags. Across the street, a sign marks out an “NRA approved” pistol range. Geissler laughs at the irony.
Geissler first showed up at the Center after the winter break of his freshman year.
“I was looking for a place to practice and I gravitated towards the Tibetan Buddhist style,” says Geissler. “Through the internet, I found the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia.”
Before he arrived, he started emailing a man named Floyd who had been a member of the Center for about 20 years. He showed Geissler what to do when he got there.
“Even when I was abroad I kind of missed this…little center in Philadelphia,” Geissler says. “It’s the kind of spiritual community, sangha we call it, that I want to belong to.”
About a year after he joined the community, Geissler asked his teacher Losang Samten, who he calls Losang La, if he could take refuge, formally placing your ultimate faith and hope in the Buddha’s teachings and the spiritual community.
“I’ve noticed that in Buddhism you have to hound your teacher a long time for anything significant,” says Geissler. “I asked my teacher on three separate occasions if I could go for refuge.” Finally, his request was granted and Geissler now feels comfortable identifying as a Buddhist practitioner.
10:04 a.m. Sunday December 9
Geissler rushes in as Losang La begins the service. The room is filled with people sitting on scattered prayer mats and in rows of chairs. Not one of the members is Asian and most of them appear to be well over the age of 45.
The room is small, but open and light. Depictions of gods hang on every wall, as well as a photograph of the Dalai Lama smiling down on the small sangha.
“Don’t step over the prayer books and don’t let the bottoms of your feet face the teacher,” Geissler directs and then scurries stocking-footed over to an empty mat on the floor.
He picks up a book and begins chanting prayers in Tibetan with the rest of the group.
“Now we will have 10 minutes of silent meditation,” Losang La says.
Ten, 20, 40 minutes pass in silence before it is time to take a break. People filter to the back of the room where they eat dried fruit and drink tea while polite conversations fill the room. Geissler floats around chatting with friends and strangers.
After a second round of prayer and instruction members stack pillows and shelve prayer books.
“I always feel better after going to the Buddhist Center,” Geissler says as he steps out the door and onto the wet pavement. “It makes me calmer.”
He feels that Buddhism is training the mind. “Buddhism gives you step-by-step processes on how to do this,” Geissler says enthusiastically. “It is constantly pressuring me to abandon bad habits, to be kinder to people, to control my own instabilities, to live my life in accordance with the teachings.”
Buddhism fits into a very specific part of Geissler’s life. “I try not to worry about whether these things are factually true,” he says. “I do not operate as if karma and rebirth are true, but in terms of spiritual things, yeah, I do think about things that way. It’s a lens.”
12:13 p.m. Sunday December 9
The rain has finally died down and simply spits out the occasional drop. Geissler does not seem to notice any of it. He starts talking about Losang La and how lucky they are to have such a qualified teacher. He goes on to talk about the time he brought Losang La to Swarthmore.
And soon Geissler is back to where he started, talking about Chinatown and the growth of the city. On the outside at least, nothing appears to have changed.
With regard to his faith journey, Geissler has few regrets.
“In an ideal world, I would meditate,” he says sheepishly. “I don’t. I don’t like to. I have monkey mind. I guess in the last couple of years I would have worried less about getting to the next step.”
Geissler does not know where his faith will take him in the future, and he is okay with this. He knows that he might forget everything, but he hopes not. He says that it all depends on his life path.
12:27 p.m. Sunday December 9
The trip back to Swarthmore is a blur.
Back at Reading Terminal Market Geissler seeks out a taco place that he heard has the best guacamole in Philadelphia and on the way out he picks up a block of cheese to bring back to his friends.
On the 1:05 SEPTA, Geissler sighs and rolls his eyes. He is going back to a lot of work: his thesis, class work, and a messy room. Everything that he sets aside on his weekly journey.
He steps back onto campus at 1:38 p.m.
Some people have a hard time fitting an hour of church services into their weekly schedules, but Geissler devotes almost six to his weekly spiritual journey. He knows that it is worth his time. Sometimes life gets in the way. He goes on fencing tournaments some weekends and increasingly his schoolwork has gotten in the way. But he keeps going.
“I can’t make it every week,” Geissler says shrugging. “I try my best.”