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Beyond Buddha to Beloved
Image: Alexander Garcia

Click … click … click. I could hear my parents in the other room using a handheld tally counter as they recited mantras. In one day in our home, the counter might reach 1,000 clicks, or 2 hours of meditation. They chanted in order to clear their minds and purify themselves, seeking perfect enlightenment in the way of the Buddha.

Each morning, I would wake up to the smell of incense burning. Oranges and pineapple cake were offered in front of Buddha statues in a room designated for meditation. Our home was like a temple. On each wall hung a Buddha portrait, totaling more than 30 deities throughout the house. A statue of the Grand Master, revered as a living Buddha, stood at the center of our home. My parents spoke often about discipline, wisdom, and training the mind according to the Four Noble Truths.

You might picture us nestled on a street in Thailand or China, yet the story of my life begins in Lawrence, Kansas, home of the legendary Jayhawks. My father was a science professor, my mother a homemaker raising my two sisters and me. The influence of a Guggenheim Award–winning dad and a so-called "tiger mom" kept the pressure on for straight As. Academics, achievement, and ambition were nonnegotiable in my search for parental approval.

My Taiwanese family lineage includes generations of Buddhists, so religion was destined to be integral to my identity formation. Yet outside our home, our neighbors pursued an entirely different faith. As I practiced the violin on Sunday mornings, my attention drifted to the sound of cars pulling up outside. Families dressed in their best would get out and walk to one of the many churches down the block. I would watch them, and then return to the Suzuki method. Somehow I managed to go through 18 years of life without ever hearing the Good News of Jesus.

Radiating Love

In the mid-1990s, I arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) with eyes wide open, eager to soak in all campus life had to offer. I had chosen UIUC because of its engineering program and its closeness to home, plus its diversity and active student organizations. Back in Lawrence, I had been regularly reminded that I am in an ethnic minority. At UIUC, for the first time in my life, I met not one or two but a whole group of people who looked like me, had similar upbringings, and knew what it's like to be bicultural in a white-majority culture.

My dorm was full of fervent Christians: the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) students shared a bond with each other and seemed to radiate love. They were the first Asian American Christians I had ever met. They cared about things that were important to me—like living with purpose and having compassion for a cause beyond themselves. Living with them, I began to realize that the Buddhism of my upbringing was not in my heart.

Growing curious about Christianity during my sophomore year, I asked a friend if I could join him at an IVCF gathering. There I heard for the first time God's promises declared in worship songs and saw men and women praising him. I soon joined a gig (Groups Investigating God) and began studying my first Bible, beginning with the Gospel of John. The authority with which Jesus spoke amazed me; it's as if his words jumped off the pages, addressing me directly.

Before I could place faith in Jesus, I needed to know there was a rational basis for Christianity's foundational truths. Early that summer, I attended Chapter Focus Week (a retreat sponsored by IVCF), where I took an apologetics track. I heard well-founded explanations of the inspiration of Scripture, the problem of evil, and the uniqueness of the gospel. After the doctrines were satisfactorily defended, my gig leader recommended that I focus on the person of Jesus, so as not to let my endless philosophical queries distract me from the main character of Scripture. Jesus' display of justice and compassion from the cross made perfect sense, and my reservations dissipated. I found that, contrary to the media's portrayal of it as narrow, crazy, and judgmental, Christianity was the most intellectually stimulating worldview I had ever encountered.

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Beyond Buddha to Beloved