ENID, Okla. — In a region often described as the “buckle of the Bible belt,” there are numerous paths to Christian faith. But for one local man, finding Christ again after an episode of abuse within the church meant first rediscovering peace, love and compassion through the practices of Buddhism and yoga.
Abuse in the church
Trey Daman, a local yoga and meditation instructor, said he grew up with a Christian background not uncommon to many in Northwest Oklahoma in a conservative Protestant church.
Church was the center of Daman’s family life as a boy. His father served as a youth minister and his mother, a stay-at-home mom, was active in ministry.
“We had kids coming to our home all the time for youth ministry,” Daman said, “and I grew up that way.”
But, the idyllic Christian upbringing did not last.
An episode of “church politics” led to his father leaving the church. Later, his parents divorced.
But, Daman continued in the church, seeking solace in what he described as “the most vulnerable time in my life.” A youth pastor, who also turned out to be a sexual predator, took advantage of that vulnerability and victimized Daman.
That experience, and the trauma it caused, drove Daman away from church and away from faith entirely.
“At that point in my life, I was leaning toward being agnostic, or maybe even atheist,” Daman said, “but I was done with the idea of a God who loved me.”
A downward spiral
Stripped of faith, he turned to substance abuse in search of relief.
“I had a lot of confusion and a lot of mental and emotional pain,” Daman said, “and I sought relief through drugs and alcohol.”
Chemical dependence took Daman on a downward spiral, negatively impacting jobs, his military service and personal relationships. Eventually, his habits landed Daman in jail.
He’s back on his feet now, living on his own with a job and a growing yoga and meditation practice.
The details of how and why he fell into substance abuse are painful to discuss, Daman said, but he shares his story in case it can be helpful to others who’ve faced similar abuse.
“I never know who’s going to benefit from hearing my story,” he said, “and the more transparent I can be the more light it might shine for someone who’s living in darkness.”
Path to recovery
When Daman first went to Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the first things he learned was he needed the help of “a higher power” to tackle his addiction.
“They told me I needed God’s help,” Daman said, “and with the experience I’d had with church, I had a lot of struggles with that. It was hard for me to seek Christ again because of Christian people and what had happened to me.”
He found a way around that barrier, Daman said, while reading “Bill’s Story” in the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book,” which accompanies AA’s 12-step program. The story follows a man who, like Daman, had a hard time coming to God through the path of Christian churches.
In the story, a friend asks Bill this question, which proved to be an epiphany for Daman: “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”
It was just enough of an opening, he said, to begin reconsidering faith.
“That cracked the door open for me a little bit,” Daman said. “That helped me see God doesn’t put limitations on how I seek him. It helped me see God doesn’t judge me on how I seek him.”
But, it didn’t mean he was ready to delve back into the faith that still carried feelings of pain and abuse.
“Christianity wasn’t there for me, because of my experience as a child,” Daman said. “Christianity was very dark for me.”
Finding peace within
Daman began looking to other faith practices in search of a way out of that darkness, to ease the pain and the still-strong allure of substance abuse.
“I just needed something to find wholeness and peace within,” he said. “I was seeking relief because I still struggled with drugs and drinking. I was very discontent with being sober.”
When he came across Buddhist teachings, and Buddhism’s emphasis on relieving the roots of human suffering, he began to see a path “out of the darkness.”
“I found what suffering is all about,” Daman said, “and that it’s part of life — but there’s ways for us to live through it.”
He began to learn new ways to embrace forgiveness and compassion. And, when he added yoga and meditation to his spiritual practice, he said his body and mind began to learn ways to deal with mental anguish.
At first, it wasn’t about pursuing religion. It was a way to find inner peace, which Daman said needed to happen before he could find his way back to God.
“I was still unsure about who God was,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on being a Buddhist, or a Christian or anything. I just wanted some relief.”
When he found that relief, he said he began to see pathways from the Buddhist teachings on love and compassion to the central teachings of Jesus in the Gospel.
“The combination of Buddhism and yoga brought me to a place of inner peace, where I could believe again that there is a loving God,” Daman said. “The true Gospel teachings of Jesus were able to make sense to me for the first time.”
Before long, Daman found himself reading the Bible again, while also going deeper into Buddhist spiritual practices and teachings.
He said the combination of Christian and Buddhist teachings “allowed me to forgive myself, and it allowed me to overcome resentments and forgive others.
“God created us to have a higher self through the Holy Spirit,” Daman said. “I never could have found my higher self if I hadn’t learned how to work through my sufferings. Buddhist teachings helped open that gate so I could walk through.”
Path toward destination
Daman is not alone in finding a way to connect more deeply with Christianity by following Buddhist practices.
Since Buddhism is non-theistic, does not ascribe an identity to God and does not bar its adherents from having their own conception of God, a long line of Christians have found spiritual value in using Buddhist teachings on compassion and suffering, and practices such as meditation and yoga, to draw closer to God and the teachings of the Gospel.
Christian theologian Paul Knitter, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, summed this issue up in the title of his book, “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian.”
Knitter explained, in a June 2010 article in National Catholic Reporter (NCR), that Buddhist spiritual practices helped him approach God on a personal level.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the dissatisfaction that many of us Christians feel with a God who is all out there, a God who is totally other than I, the God who stands outside of me and confronts me,” Knitter told NCR. “I think we’re searching for ways of realizing the mystery of the divine of God in a way in which it is more a part of our very selves.”
Baptist minister, theologian and author S. Mark Heim also has written extensively about how Buddhist teachings can aid Christians in better pursuing and embracing Christ as savior.
The late Thomas Merton, a Catholic Trappist monk of the 20th century, wrote extensively on the intersections of Christianity and Buddhism, especially in the similarities between Buddhist meditative practices and the prayer life of Christianity’s “Desert Fathers” — early monks who led austere lives of prayer and meditation in the desert.
Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, N.M., teaches extensively on Buddhist practices as a means to draw closer to Christ.
These, and other Christian theologians, have found Buddhism a useful path toward the destination of a closer relationship with Christ.
Daman acknowledged using Buddhist practices to approach Christianity is not a popular notion among many conservative Christians.
“It’s definitely caused me some grief,” Daman said, “from Christians, in some of the communities I’ve lived in, whether it’s been in Florida or Oklahoma.”
But, he said, he’s not worried about that, as long as he keeps drawing closer to God.
“God doesn’t make terms for how we come to him, and for us to judge how God comes to people is just restricting how we receive him,” Daman said. “I know how it makes me feel. And I know, through the focus on love and compassion, it makes me a better person. It makes me a better Christian.”
Daman said he makes a point of not arguing with those who have a problem with his approach to faith.
“If I’m able to function better in society because of it, and I’m able to benefit my fellow man better through a combination of teachings, and you have a problem with that … I just have a responsibility to not react to that,” he said.
While following Buddha to reach Christ is a different path than most, Daman said he’s grateful he had the former to help him rediscover the latter.
“I am a child of God, who created me, and he’s given me all kinds of avenues to find him and relieve myself of suffering in this world,” he said. “I think he was seeking me the whole time, and my way of opening up to him just ended up being different than some others.”