Moving beyond tolerance … in making new friends


Today’s story in our weekly series takes us both to the Far East—and then back home again into the heart of our American communities. Noelle Sutherland, an educator, writes today’s story out of her experience as an American woman who began to follow a movement within Buddhism that is lesser known in the U.S.—and suddenly found herself navigating the difficult pathway of religious diversity. In the end, Noelle’s appeal is this: Let’s move beyond mere tolerance!

In a recent discussion group discussing the book “Friendship and Faith,” one participant named Noelle’s story as the most important in this new book. Why? “Because she makes the point that ‘tolerance’ just isn’t a good enough goal to set for ourselves anymore,” said a woman in the circle. “Maybe that was our goal once upon a time, when we were just discovering our diversity back in the mid 20th Century and we couldn’t do any better, but it shouldn’t be our goal now.” We’ll let Noelle explain why …

This is Noelle Sutherland’s story …

I have some friends who have been extremely accepting about our religion. They’ve seen how much it has changed my life in positive ways. They’ve asked questions about it, and I’m happy to answer their questions. But mostly these are friends I’ve met more recently—friends who haven’t known me for years. There are old friends who I still haven’t told that I’m now Buddhist.

My husband and I follow Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism, and most of the followers worldwide are Japanese. I’m not. I’m Caucasian. I grew up in the Midwest. My family has lived in Michigan forever. So, this is quite different for people who knew me years ago while I was growing up. I have a master’s degree and I’m a middle-school teacher of science and social studies. I hadn’t really found a religion for myself, but my husband and I—as we met and eventually got married—discovered that we both had this strong connection with Buddhism and the various philosophies and practices within Buddhism. We had both been reading about it, we discovered! My husband had a whole collection of books about Buddhism. While I hadn’t had any religious upbringing, he came from a family that was very strongly Roman Catholic. So, this was new and quite different for both of us—but we both felt this very strong connection to Buddhism.

We had not really acted on that, but when we were married I got pregnant right away. We both realized: We’ve got a family coming—we should go ahead and find someplace to attend. We began trying different churches, and one day we met some people who were practicing Nichiren Buddhism. Very quickly we found that—my gosh—everything about their practice was exactly what we were looking for.

We became Nichiren Buddhist about six years ago. Nichiren Daishonin was a Japanese monk born in Japan in 1222. Basically, we follow the Lotus Sutra, writings of Nichiren Diashonin, and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo daily. Buddhism is a mainstream religion, and Nichiren Buddhism is growing in size, but there aren’t a lot of people who practice this in Michigan.

We practice in our homes, where we also hold meetings. We also attend monthly meetings at a community center. We have potlucks. You might think that my son, growing up in the suburbs, would be getting a steady diet of pizza and hamburgers. But, because most of the people in Nichiren Buddhism are from Asia, my son is growing up eating curry and sushi regularly.

This choice we’ve made has been absolutely wonderful for my husband and our family, but it has been a struggle for me in other ways. We live in a mostly Christian society in this country, and I guess a lot of people don’t realize how important the Asian influence has become. Millions of Americans are practicing yoga, and Asian religious traditions are a growing part of this country’s culture—but some people are not very accepting of our choice.

I’ve had people look at me and say: “You’re an American Caucasian woman—so how can you be a Buddhist?”

Even though we’ve spent years with our religious practice, I still haven’t worked out how to relate to all of my old friends. There are still some who knew me years ago who I haven’t talked with about this. I’m not sure what their reactions would be.

This has been a very good choice for us. People who know me can see that I’ve got a lot more optimism about life now, but there is a fear in some friendships. I’m human. I get afraid. I don’t want to ruin things with friends. I do wonder: Will I be judged by a different standard if this person knows my religious experiences are not the same as most people?

It’s a lot easier for me to form new friendships. When I make new friends, things aren’t so difficult. I just describe who I am. This is all just a part of my life. New friends get to know the person I am today. Buddhism is a large part of my life, and I don’t find that I need to explain myself, only explain what they might not know about my religion.

What I fear is that someone I knew in the past won’t respect the importance of my choices. I don’t want to hear them saying, “Oh, this is just a phase you’re going through.” And, I don’t want to hear them say, “Oh, it’s just a bandwagon she’s jumping on.”

In some ways, I wish I had been born into Buddhism. There’s a phrase, “fortune babies”—for people who were born and grew up in the religion. When you’re born into it, you’ve got all the confidence and all the knowledge of your tradition from so many years of living within it.

But there are a lot of Americans like me, who look around for the religion that’s right for them—and who do make changes. Millions of Americans are making new religious choices. I hope that more people will become accepting of these choices.

I know it’s possible. At a wedding, I found myself sitting at a table with a girlfriend from college. She’s a Christian but she is very open to new ideas. We got to talking about what we believe. I told her about my practice—and she was interested in my story. We had a good and very lengthy discussion. She made me feel confident in the way she responded. It was a wonderful experience.

I wish people would stay open-minded, like this friend I met again at the wedding. The key is acceptance. I don’t like the word “tolerate.” As a teacher, I can “tolerate” kids at school, but that’s not enough for strong relationships between friends. We need more than that in our relationships. Acceptance truly helps to make our lives better.

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