Why Buddhism? by Denise Nélis



“A threefold anxiety marks everyone’s life: the fear of extinction, despair when faced with absurdity and the anguish of loneliness” Karlfried Graf Dürkhem.

When a whole lifetime has been spent immersed in Western culture and one has walked alongside the different aspects of Western philosophy and spirituality as I have done, it  might be helpful to shed some light on those factors which lead one to Buddhism in the first place, in order to assess the measure of one’s sincerity and commitment to this Path and its teachings. It is for this reason, long overdue, that I would like to retrace the steps which finally brought me to commit to this path.

For me it is important also to try to harmonize my adherence to Western values with those values I encountered from the East in order to integrate both of them fully.

Three elements from my youth, I think, have been decisive in my life and could shed some light on those factors which made who I am. (It needs to be said that I was born in 1927):

1: As a child, from the age of six onwards, my parents, due to difficult family circumstances, sent me and an older sister to stay in a boarding school, a stay that lasted for five years. There I discovered for the first time the feeling of loneliness with all its night terrors. Trying all the while to fulfill my mother’s expectations “to be reasonable” I developed an interest (compensatory no doubt) in knowledge. Ever since that time, the study of consciousness has played an important role in my life.

2: I went back to the family home in my teens and it was at that time that war broke out: the collapse of the values of a civilisation in which everyone had believed, leading to a violent world in which countries which had previously shared common values now confronted one another on the battlefield. I have firmly been in support of a path of nonviolence and antimilitarism ever since.

3: Catholicism was my family’s religion and the religion of my different schools, youth movements and campaigns. In my twenties I was the director of a holiday home for young girls. This post made me take on responsibilities very early in life (maybe too early?)

However, I quickly came to feel that I had not received from my education those prerequisites for achieving balance in my life; or to put it better, those essential requirements needed for a full blossoming.

Too many questions were left unanswered for me: the question of sexuality, the role of women in society, those arbitrarily enforced dogmas; why we are made to feel guilty apriori, with the consequence that we are never quite capable of accepting ourselves;   the presence of evil and suffering in the world: in short, why is there a life such as it is? (With regard to this I find an analysis of this time entitled “The Gospel of a free-thinker” written by Gabriel Ringlet, a theologian priest who states: “When I see what kind of infantilism Christians have been kept in, what nonsense, what backwardness, what guilt…you must forgive me, a terrible anger takes hold of me. I cannot bear seeing the living Gospel turned into a dead man’s soup, p.150”)

The reason for mentioning these facts is just to situate myself as I began my adult life and to retrace the steps which brought me, after a long detour, to Buddhism.

My first discovery of Tibet I remember very clearly. It came to me through the writings of Alexandra David Neel. Her stories provided me with a picture of a fascinating world forsure, but an esoteric and closed world nevertheless.

Outside of my professional life (I was working as a social worker in a factory in an industrial region) I learnt about Eastern spirituality, sometimes specifically Buddhism, mainly from books. Without a doubt it was Aldous Huxley’s essays, “Proper Studies” and “Ends and Means”, written after the war, that gave me a positive image of Buddhism. I have to admit that this author remains one of my favorite reads. It was he who opened new perspectives to me on a more balanced and open spirituality.

On a lighter note I also remember that in Belgium, from 1960, we enjoyed the publication of “Tintin in Tibet” by Hergé.

My fondness for those writers who present us with questions on what it means to be alive continues to this day. Writers whose restlessness makes us realize sometimes the absurdity of our life: Camus and his warm humanism; Cioran and his distress.

Less literary contacts came with Arnaud Desjardins. I followed a series of his lectures on the radio at the start of the ’60s. I purchased “A la recherche du soi” (Finding oneself) “Monde moderne et Sagesse Ancienne” (Modern world and ancient wisdom) and a book on Gurdjieff. I also got a subscription to the magazine “Planete” from its very first publication in October of ’61. Louis Pauwels, its editor, wanted to research the cultures of both ancient and contemporary civilizations; sometimes these were far-away cultures which gave different views from those of the West. Thanks to this publication I discovered the works of Teilhard de Chardin and Julian Huxley as well as the personal accounts of some travellers who had returned from Tibetan monasteries. This magazine was also a great comfort to me at a time when I felt uneasy about colonialism and the indoctrination of indigenous populations, especially in the Belgian Congo. The magazine adopted an open and positive approach to all the varied responses humanity has provided from different living experiences; different answers to the question of how to live  our life which were accessible to anyone.

Apart from books, the arts and especially music have always provided me with havens of peace. Music brings a kind of serenity which awakens the best part of us. Chamber music particularly has been my life-long companion and has helped me live my life. I quote Cioran: “We never really feel we have ‘a soul’ except when we are listening to music” (Cahiers p.102). Although I am only a simple music-lover I cannot but mention that I believe music has made an essential contribution to Western spirituality and it continues to do so. It is the art of music that offers us glimpses of those dimensions which transcend our understanding.

I followed with dismay, like the rest of us, the drama played out in Tibet , without being able to discover its full extent. The Dalai Lama’s flight and his arrival in India gave us at least some idea of the extent of this tragedy. When the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 Europe and the rest of the world discovered his kindness and wisdom and the radiant presence of the best representative of Tibetan Buddhism to the world. But long before his coming to the West there were pictures and articles telling us, no doubt only partially, of the “cultural genocide” that the rest of the Tibetan population was going through.

In 1983 came a turning point in my life: I joined the fledging ecology party. In the “Black Country” I had discovered pollution and its effects on health; the degradation of our planet; the condition of the working class and the inequalities between men and women as well as the need for ethics in the political arena and the lack of citizen participation in the running of the country. The ecology party’s ambition was to “conduct a different kind of politics”. These were difficult beginnings and they led me to become further involved and made me assume responsibilities unimagined before. This lasted until the year 1994.

It was rather late in life that I decided to study Buddhism and the answers it brought in greater depth, and to study it not just as a philosophy but as a way of living. I had had the opportunity of following closely the file on Tibetan affairs from a political standpoint, and also the behaviour of the Tibetan people. I discovered here affinities with an ecology which put man at the centre of nature, not giving him any privileges but stressing his responsibilities. But in regard to teachings, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. I followed regularly the Buddhist broadcasts on France 2, which one day advised its listeners to buy a Guide by Ph. Cornu. Here I found the address and further details of the Institut Yeunten Ling in Huy. I have followed my Buddhist studies there regularly on weekends since 2000.

I had read extensively about Buddhism before, but the discovery of these living teachings has been an irreplaceable experience for me, especially as all this takes place in such a  peaceful and pleasant atmosphere. What struck me so favourably was that after the teaching there was a place for questions. Then at last, in the peace of the temple, I discovered meditation. Sharing meditation with others helped with a practice which I did not find easy to do. In the religion which was familiar to me prayer is very different because it involves directing thought to a God and is more of an impulse. The kind of meditation that I strive to do now requires, for me, a calm environment. Strangely enough being with other meditators has helped me, although I must say I am still a mediocre meditator, even if once in a while I have felt a peace and an unexpected sense of wellbeing which has allowed me some glimpses of what meditation could be. But these have just been glimpses.

I have re-read my notes from this time and I have felt once again the pleasure of discovering a well-structured philosophy along with an acute and psychologically-sound analysis which seemed relevant and totally convincing.

Nevertheless, I remember being completely perplexed by the rituals and ceremonies and the whole colourful display of the Tibetan environment. (All teachings were given in Tibetan). It is true that all the lamas were Tibetan and that their wish must have been to keep alive a culture endangered in their own country, but I was doubtful as to whether I could assimilate all of this exoticism and these esoteric practices. On the other hand, it was easy for me to understand and value the transcendental virtues (or Paramitas). I was convinced they were the path leading to becoming a complete human being, even if they seemed difficult to master. Transcendental Wisdom especially seemed so far removed from the Western way of life. But so too was Patience!

In May 2001, following the advice of a Buddhist friend of mine whom I had met in Huy, I attended a teaching given by Ringu Tulku Rinpoche. His teachings consisted of a day’s session of straightforward questions and answers. The teachings were given in English and translated. I helped a neighbour in difficulty to ask a question in writing. She was in great distress as she was living on her own with a handicapped child and was not able to find a way out of her problems. Rinpoche’s presence and the calm, peaceful way he answered questions made me realize the depths this kind of spirituality can have. As a social worker I was aware of how difficult it can be adopting the right approach when dealing with people. The next day I attended Rinpoche’s evening teaching session with my neigbour. I know she has now found an easier way to deal with her situation, better both for herself and her child.

I am relating this particular personal experience because I am convinced that finding Buddhism follows three clear stages: reading, studying the teachings and meeting a Master who embodies what you have learnt intellectually. Afterwards, I know, one needs to practice and to integrate the teachings into one’s daily life, so as to overcome any obstacle that might present itself on the path of assimilating this new kind of spirituality. (I hesitate to use the term religion which has been so badly misused and so often betrayed by muddled arguments). It has been a long and difficult road for me. Nevertheless many elements in Buddhism were always very attractive especially as so many of these elements were already deeply rooted in me: non-violence and compassion; love for all beings and a respect for nature. There were other elements which rapidly seemed convincing to me and which answered some of the questions which had remained unanswered in my mind up to that time: interdependence, impermanence (so obvious!) and reincarnation (even if my understanding of it is not exactly orthodox).

I have regularly followed Ringu Tulku Rinpoche’s teachings since that time. These teachings have become clearer and more accessible to me. Rinpoche’s easy manner and understanding allowed me to comprehend that the essential thing was to find and take from the Buddhist message what was good for oneself; that was the important part.

Although I was very attracted to the teachings at first I subsequently felt some resistance to taking them on fully. I cannot easily explain why it was so. Meditation started to feel less accessible to me.

On the other hand, my health was beginning to deteriorate. Old age brought added difficulties into my life: my hearing, so necessary to function in any environment and now vital to hear the teachings, and rheumatic pains, a real handicap to the achieving of peace and tranquility. In addition to that, having to travel to the Centres also became an added difficulty, given that I have a real need to practice in communion with others. Probably this is my greatest problem at the moment. I know it would be wise to accept those limitations that come with old age, but between knowing and being there seems to be an immeasurable gap which each one of us is called on to experience on many different levels.

As a matter of fact Buddhism may give the impression of being a solitary spiritual practice, especially if one has no connection to a Buddhist Centre. Meditation is a kind of  going inwards into oneself, even if the merit is dedicated to all sentient beings. It is very different from monotheistic faiths which are experienced under the eyes of a Being “out there”.

Of course there is “Sangha”, yet I must admit that for me this remains a distant and theoretical notion.

In 2002, I went to a lecture given by Maître Roland Yuno Rech which did a lot to help me understand the different approaches of Western and Eastern spirituality. He is a zen monk and a Westerner and he pointed out that Buddhism can offer some kind of balance to the disoriented European mind. For him Buddhism allows us to rediscover Oneness and gives us a deeper sense of what life is in order to leave behind dualities prejudicial to our blossoming: the duality between body and mind, between oneself and others,between man and nature, between matter and spirit, between means and ends and finally the duality between life and death.

Obviously I am summarizing the way I personally understood this teaching. It went a long way to explain Western attraction to Buddhism, I think, and the essential contribution Buddhism has made to a world out of balance.

But why so much hesitation on my part in taking a decisive step? It is true that it is not in my nature to commit myself rashly to anything and I still felt a certain reticence in relation to certain practices. Maybe it was also due to laziness. But in reality I felt a kind of reluctance to let go of some things. Although I remain attached to the Gospel message, its institutions didn’t seem to carry that message and I had broken with them. Too many riches, too much power, too many absolute certitudes and too many inflexible diktats. In spite of this, so many Catholics have held and hold still Christ’s message in a remarkable and exemplary way. What complexities there are, engendered by human behaviour!

It took a sudden and urgent hospitalization in October 2009 to nudge me into making a decision. (I have recently read in a study that aging brings with it a resistance to change. There I have finally found the justification for all my prevarications. Ah, one always finds a way of justifying things!) As I was in a critical state, the nurse who was writing my medical records asked my religion. After a moment of reflection I answered: “Buddhism”. During the weeks I was in hospital I thought about what had urged me to give this response. In the first place, in all sincerity, I did not see myself dying with the label “No religion”. I have been convinced all my life that spiritual values are absolutely essential and carry the hope of humanity when they are imprinted with openness to others. My story bears an epigraph by K-G Dürkheim that seems to admirably encapsulate human life’s woes. Buddhism has provided me with the best answers: Buddhist philosophy and the transcendental virtues at the heart of its practices correspond most closely to my vision of an accomplished being.

And above all, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche’s kindness, encouragement and understanding have been a great comfort and a considerable help to me in the last few years. My answer could not be anything else.

In March 2010 Rinpoche came to Brussels and with the speedy and expert help of Francois Henrard, I took Refuge with him in the Kagyu Samye Dzong temple in spite of his busy schedule. I am thankful to those who made this sudden hospitality possible. I received the lovely name of “The Torch of Dharma”.

I do not believe myself to be a very good Buddhist. I do not know if I can make much progress in the time I have left. I know however that my rational mind, too Western without a doubt, needn’t bother me too much. What I need is to find a way to harmonize those things I have received from my Western upbringing with the Buddhist path. I must reconcile Western methods of questioning, with its doubts and its values with the spiritual path I have chosen and also with certain practices and rituals which remain difficult and a little inaccessible to me. But I know I am happy to have taken on a kind of spirituality which combines compassion and wisdom so wonderfully, and my hope is that maybe in another existence after I die, I will be able to embody these qualities more fully.

05/08/2010 Denise Nélis

(Translated from the French by Marita Faaberg) Final edit by Pete Baynes

En Francais


3 responses to “Why Buddhism? by Denise Nélis”

  1. David Quirke-Thornton Avatar
    David Quirke-Thornton

    What a lovely life story – insightful and inspirational – thank you for sharing it with us Denise.
    Love and best wishes from London.

  2. Denise Nélis 82 ans ! Avatar
    Denise Nélis 82 ans !

    Thank you,David for your kind and indulgent message.
    Love Denise

  3. Heru Avatar

    Exactly. People have it in their minds that being enlightened is some myastcil and elusive thing that you have to dedicate your life to discover, when thats not the case. For some people it may take longer than others, but once you realize what videos like these are saying they make 100% total sense. My analogy is that we are the movie screen in which the movie of life is playing. Dont identify with the content, just stay as the screen watching it all go down in a detached way.

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