Julia Stephenson: The Green Goddess

Muddled in your head? Come to Buddha
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The Independent Online

A year ago, I had an idea for a TV programme exploring the modern phenomenon of "spiritual shopping". I pitched it to hundreds of telly Tristrams, but no luck. So it came as a bit of a shock to switch on the TV last week to find myself watching this very programme. What an amazing coincidence!

A year ago, I had an idea for a TV programme exploring the modern phenomenon of "spiritual shopping". I pitched it to hundreds of telly Tristrams, but no luck. So it came as a bit of a shock to switch on the TV last week to find myself watching this very programme. What an amazing coincidence!

During the programme, a spiritually inclined woman skims through the world's major religions, hoping one will click with her. It's a sort of spiritual speed-dating. The trouble is, she whirls through them so quickly that it's impossible to get to grips with any of them.

But at least the focus was on orthodox religions, which have become an unfashionable concept in recent years. These days, people want a quick spiritual fix without committing to an established religion. It's fine to describe yourself as "spiritual" but saying you are "religious" is like admitting you have athlete's foot or genital herpes.

At this stage I must come clean, for I once spiritually shopped for England. I have studied Reiki in Kathmandu, ayurvedic medicine in the Himalayas, got locked into a flotation tank on Bondi Beach, fasted on liquid ghee in Kent, trekked to Dharamsala to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama, travelled the world with the motivational guru Tony Robbins, firewalked on three continents and studied Buddhism in Tokyo. I have consulted the world's top astrologers and psychics from Nantucket to Brittany. You name it, I've done it.

Some of it was illuminating, but this pick'n'mix approach did not give me the understanding and contentment I craved. Then I met an organised religion that worked. Fifteen years ago, a friend took me to a Buddhist meeting and, liking what I saw, I threw myself into a practice of chanting, studying and helping to run our local group.

In Britain, becoming a Buddhist could be seen as a flaky spiritual affectation. But the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin is a well-organised practical religion, requiring effort and dedication. It has nothing to do with escaping to a distant mountaintop, but is firmly rooted in today's world. I now have a tool with which to navigate the ups and downs of modern life.

Buddhism gives me a solid foundation. To put it more poetically, it is my true North. It sorts out the muddle in my head and has made me kinder and more grounded (you can imagine what I was like before). I get along better with my family, and am calmer and more creative.

British people are suspicious of organisations, but we create so much more value as a group. It's easy to be an island, thinking of oneself as vaguely spiritual, but spirituality isn't some vague beatific thing involving nothing more arduous than skimming a few self-help books, practising yoga occasionally and being massaged to whale music. It takes real work, which most people can't be fagged to do.

I find myself drawn to people with religious faith. A friend is a vicar in a tough part of London. At parties, we whisper conspiratorially about our "faith". Though we practise different religions, we are bonded in our almost Romantic belief in the existence of grace in daily life. Another friend is a Pakistani artist who slips away five times a day to pray. A Catholic friend will say grace before tucking into his Chinese takeaway. Such sincerity makes me misty-eyed.

People say religion causes wars, but people would still find other reasons to hate one another. It's easy to forget the serenity and security millions gain from their faith.

After the general election, a man e-mailed with some good ideas for articles. It transpired that he was more interested in a date than wind turbines, but I was shocked when he asked if I was spiritual. It's such a pointless question. No one is going to say: "No, I'm not spiritual," any more than confess they're bad in bed or have no sense of humour. And if that weren't bad enough, he then asked what my Sun sign was! Oh dear!

It's always a surprise that so many people eschew religion and choose instead to worship at the font of Shelley von Strunckel and her church of riddles, but each to their own.

This woolly modern spirituality was confirmed when I wrote an article about online dating agencies. Desperado daters have to tick a box outlining their spiritual preference. A thrilling cornucopia of religions are represented, ending with the "Spiritual but not religious" box. Nine out of 10 people tick this box. What a bunch of tossers. But Buddhism is a tolerant, pluralistic religion, so I rescind that last comment.

May your god go with you, as the late great Dave Allen used to say. And that applies to you dolphin botherers, too.

j.stephenson@independent.co.uk

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