Novice Joe Pierce - an introduction.
So, I feel like, for my first Dharma Talk, I will start with how I got to be in this seat. My hope is that, through sharing my spiritual journey, you all will get to know me a little bit better.
So where to begin? Demographics seems cursory enough. I'm 35 years old. Born and raised in Columbus Ohio. Divorced with one child, Brayden, who I love very very much. I have two brothers, one younger, Mickey, and one older who has estranged himself from the family. Mickey and I live in Hilliard, which is where I went to High School. I Graduated from Ohio State with an undergrad in Psychology and followed up with seminary at Methodist Theological School with a Master's of Divinity. I was so proud of that. Joe Pierce: Master of Divinity. Sounds so pretentious, yet pretty cool at the same time. In between my undergrad and graduate schooling, I served in the Ghana as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years.
My journey into spirituality started at a young age. My parents divorced when I was around seven. From that point I lived with my Mother, Kelly. She was Unitarian Universalist. We went to First UU down in Clintonville. I don't remember much besides playing in the classrooms, but I suppose it was my first encounter with a church proper.
Around the time I was ten, my mom went back to school. We moved to Buckeye Village which is housing complex just outside of OSU's campus. We had Guinea Pigs. It wasn't uncommon for my brother to take one particular Guinea Pig, Squirmy, into the bathroom with him when he took a bath. One day, I heard a scream from the bathroom. Squirmy had fallen in unnoticed for just long enough to be tragic for all of us. As my mom attended to my brother, I scooped up Squirmy and took him to my mother's room. I don't remember how I knew about God, but I do know that on that day, I begged God to bring Squirmy back. I promised everything my ten year old self could think of. Squirmy didn't come back and for a long time, I had no use for God.
No use for God is probably an understatement. As I grew up and moved into High School, I learned more about the Christian God and more importantly, High School Christians, and found out that I didn't care for them either of them. Adding to this, my dad was a fairly militant Atheist at the time, and I idolized my father. These two things made me quite the antagonist and I had a reputation for always being willing to argue with just about anyone.
In my senior year of high school, I found marijuana and this mellowed me out quite a bit. My best friend and I used to discuss religion at length and over time, it became less adversarial and more inquisitive. We both remember a time when I proved the existence of God but neither one of us remember the proof. Drugs will do that. Anyway, I started to explore other religions and this is when I first came across Buddhism. Although I found it to be interesting, I remember feeling like I wasn't a good enough person to be a Buddhist. I thought you had to be ready to commit to a life with a lot of rules and goodness, and at that age, it seemed like I would miss out on an awful lot. Also, I really didn't believe I was a very good person and in a lot of ways, I wasn't.
Fast forward to college and an experience that changed my life. To make money, I delivered pizza for Donatos. One day, I was out on a run and was waxing philosophical to myself about God, spirituality, and whatever came up. Not an uncommon activity for me at the time.
I remember a feeling coming over me. It started along my back and spread over my entire body. It was so intense, I had to pull over onto the side of the road. It was blissful, it was complete, and it... it was something special. It felt like an experience of Satori or Grace: I didn't ask for it, I certainly didn't deserve it, and yet there it was. It's an experience I can't adequately put into words. It was my first real spiritual experience and although I did not know what I believed in, I knew that I was no longer an Atheist.
I started off as a physics major. I learned very quickly that math was harder than I thought and that I didn't have the disposition for the effort it required. One day, in first few weeks of my second year of college, I just got up and walked out of a physics class. Something was missing. I didn't want to do what I was doing anymore and I'm not sure that I ever really did.
As I walked aimlessly around campus, my mind began to wander and I had a second experience, much like the first but less intense. I felt connected to everything and everyone. I remember coming to the decision that people mattered, that I wanted to help them, and that I was going to be good at it. I completely dropped physics as a major and switched to psychology.
As part of my studies, I ended up working for the Suicide Hotline down in the Short North. What I found working there was that when I really needed to bring someone back from the edge, the conversation became spiritual or religious in nature. I learned that not only could I speak that language but I could use it to make a connection and save lives. It was at this point that I started taking religion classes to supplement my psychology studies. I also began to attend the UU church of my mother.
One day, as I was contemplating what to do with my life after college in the back pews of the church, I imagined myself in the pulpit. These seemed so ridiculous that I almost laughed out loud. But, instead I almost threw up. My bodies reaction to the thought of doing that, of pursuing ministry, was visceral and put me in a place of knowing what I was going to do. I was going to go to seminary.
But I didn't feel like I had earned a spiritual life. I didn't feel worthy of it. I remembered that my father had wanted to join the peace corps when he was younger. I felt that going overseas and helping others would be a good step toward being worthy of seminary. I applied and was accepted and spent two years in the Ghanaian Bush. I learned a lot about myself, what I was capable of, and what I was hoping to become. Those two years changed me more than I changed anything outside of me.
I came home and went to seminary. Four years later, boom, Master of Divinity. As part of the requirements for UU ordination, we had to do one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. I did mine at Nationwide Children's Hospital . This was my first experience of chaplaincy. It was also the first time I ever prayed, bore witness to miracles and tragedy, and watched the innocent die. And yet, despite all of the heartache and tears, it was the most rewarding thing I had ever done.
After seminary, I decided to do a residency, which is a full year training as a chaplain. I served at Riverside Hospital primarily, but also Grant. I had begun to flirt with meditation but like most, I concluded that I was bad at it, and I gave up. My instructor pointed me in the direction of Buddhism several times, but again, I didn't feel worthy of it and so I didn't pursue it. It wasn't until the second to last month that a member of KTC came and gave a talk about Buddhism and I saw the temple and I decided to give it a shot. Long story short, I loved the chanting but couldn't build a bridge to belief in the Tibetan model of Buddhism.
One day, the Tibetan group met at the old building where our Monk, Glen Sensei, taught. There was a power in that place. It moved me. I read the liturgical booklet and I thought "I can get behind that". So I decided to come to a Wednesday session. I remember asking the question "What's the point, why Buddhism?". I can't remember Glen's answer but, well, here we are so it must have been satisfactory. A few months later, I asked Glen if he'd take me as a Novice and he graciously accepted.
So where do I stand now? Well, I'm ordained so that's pretty cool. Taking my vows was the second proudest day of my life, the first being the birth of my son.
But, for the record, I do come at this from a slightly different angle than Glen and DeDe. First, I am a theist, not in the guy in the sky way, but in a "there is something greater than I can conceive, describe, or logically defend". And yet it's there for me. I believe in Karma in the classical sense as well as reincarnation. I believe that the Buddha was kind of a jerk, not because of things he did, but because he was right about the nature of reality. "The root of suffering is attachment" is a truth I had to experience the hard way before I was able to believe it. Yeah, Thanks Buddha.
But, wrapped in that truth, of suffering and its origin, is the possibility of an end to suffering. Mine, yours, everyone's - and that is beautiful. Thanks, Buddha.
And so, I look forward to figuring out this whole Buddhism thing, little by little, with you. I look forward to sitting and meditating poorly with you. In time, I even hope to have something to say that points in the rough direction of meaningful. And no matter where I sit, I am thankful to be a part of this community and to be able to offer and receive what I can. We are all in this together and that's a good thing. Because none of us can do it alone.