Searching for Reality
The testimony of András Szalai, former Zen Buddhist

I didn’t want to be a Buddhist. Yet I became one, because Buddhists seemed to be people like me showing deep interest in reality. After long years of Buddhist practice I became a Christian. I didn’t want this change. It was not a spiritual whim. It was the touch of the whole reality.

At the beginning.

I was an ordinary teenager with typical problems of that age. I didn’t know myself, I hated myself, and at the age of sixteen I began a long journey to find myself and the truth about the world around me.

The Bible was interesting, and I underlined many words of Jesus with agreement, but the whole thing was just history for me and I didn’t know any real Christians. I had read almost everything: ancient philosophies, secret teachings, occult phenomena, yoga, and reincarnation, etc. I had no commitment to any of these worldviews, because I didn’t know when I would find a better one. So, although my library got bigger and bigger, my problems and questions still remained. Who am I? Why am I here?

Crazy folks...

I was eighteen when I found a book titled Zen Koans. It was something totally new for me. I took it home and skimmed through it. The Zen masters seemed to be really crazy folks, so the next day I took the book back to the shop. Oh no, I thought, it’s not for me! The bookkeeper just smiled and gave me another book titled The Basics of Buddhism.

Now that book was more understandable, and I found the address of a Buddhist Mission too. I felt that this kind of spirituality could have a great effect on my life. The question in my mind was this: “Who am I?” but Buddha answered: What are you? What is this “I,” searching himself? — Well, that was a real challenge for me!

I went to the Mission, where I met a Buddhist lady. She was not crazy; she was very nice to me. She directed me to their Buddhist bookstore on the other side of the city, and she told me something interesting before she shut the door: “You cannot see if someone is a Buddhist or not. It is an inner thing, you know?” Well, I didn’t know, but it seemed to be logical, that the real important things must be and remain inside of us. It must be our unseen, inner power — or something tragic.


The man at the Buddhist Mission told me: “I won’t tell you if there is a God or not. You just read these books” — I bought a dozen — “try to meditate, follow the instructions of the master, and if you have any questions, come and I’ll help you if I can.” His house was full of statues and pictures of Buddhas and monks, and the room smelled pleasantly of incense. I was sure he was a devout Buddhist and he really knew so much about it.

In the first year everything related to Buddhism fascinated me. The attractive culture, the Asian way of life, the quietness and composure, the martial arts, etc. I studied the background and the teachings of Buddha and of the different Buddhist schools. As a student at the “Institute for Buddhology” I wanted to be a monk. Our task in our own spiritual development was to go through the historical development of Buddhism, from Indian Hinayana to Tibetan Vajra­yana. Yet I chose Zen because its radical mentality was very appealing to me. If reincarnation was reality, the most radical way seemed to be the best way to escape from the power of karma. I even became familiar with the koans (paradox stories), which seemed stupid to me at first. I studied Chinese and Japanese and compiled a four-language vocabulary of Buddhist and Budo terms.

Experience, experience!

Buddhism is an experiential religion. My tutor told me: “You shouldn’t accept anything, just because anyone said it, until you have experienced it.” So I was encouraged to make my own decisions based upon my own experiences. What did it mean for a spiritual seeker like me?

I didn’t need any “revelation of God.” All the “revelations” claim to be the truth, but they contradict each other, and truth isn’t a question of belief — anyone should be able to experience it. Putting things simply, if I couldn’t experience it, it couldn’t be true. I hadn’t seen or heard any “God,” as Moses or Jesus did, so I didn’t need the Bible anymore, nor the Koran nor the Bhagavad Gita.

I didn’t need to depend even on stories or experiences of others, either, if those couldn’t be my own experiences. So I didn’t need the stories of near-death experiences or spirit-channellers. The only reliable experience I could have about myself and the world around me was my own.

No absolute.

I began to meditate Zazen (the “sitting meditation” of the Soto Zen School) following the instructions of master Shunryu Suzuki from his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. At first my mind was so full of many thoughts and emotions: although my body relaxed, at that time there was no real silence in my mind. I was a bit discouraged, but Suzuki’s practical guidance helped me to get further and further.

After a few years I was able to sleep, eat, work as a bookbinder, and train in karate in a meditative state of consciousness. I wasn’t a monk, but I lived as though I were. Outwardly, no one could tell that I was a Buddhist (although many knew that I was). I worked and lived like anyone else, but my inner reality wasn’t the same as the reality of the ordinary people around me.

In contemplation I realized that the Buddha’s teaching was true. It meant that I experienced what he had said. The great experience in Buddhist meditation was that “there is no absolute.” Everything and everyone (even “me”!) is just an illusory bunch of changing components, like newborn and dying body cells, transient thoughts, emotions, or desires. Every­thing is relative, de­pending on rela­tive points of view. There is nothing absolute, unchangeable, independent, or unconditional in the world, either outside or inside of me.

So every “ego” is just a bunch of illusions dreaming about its own existence. And if this were true, what about the problems you and I experience, like hatred, selfishness, and all the rest? They are mere illusions. And what about reincarnation — the body-to-body wandering of impersonal, immortal pieces of spirit? It’s only an illusion, too: there is no reincarnation — for the enlightened ones! It’s really just a bad dream full of pain, just as Buddha taught.

Game over!

For two or three months before my conversion to Jesus I went through a very intensive process. After five years “I” attained the goal — yet standing on the starting line! For “I” was always a Buddha; “I” just had to realize it. As Suzuki taught, our “original nature is the Buddha-nature.” This old András looking for the ultimate truth was finally free from himself! Free from any attachments like lust or hatred. Now “I” was awakened to the reality that there were no more illusions in the “World of Contradictions.” The opposites (like you and me, true and false, light and dark, God and Satan) became the two sides of the same reality.

What about karma? It had no power over “me” — just so long as “I” didn’t depend on anyone or anything else. If I depended on things or persons, karma could have punished or rewarded me for my ne­gative or positive dependence, giving me an earthly life again and again. But “I” be­came unable to be bound to, or depend on, or be conditioned by anything; I really had nothing else to do with life. And I knew that in a dozen years or so, if all the claims of karma were fulfilled and my body fell apart, this much-suffering “I” could die completely, once and for all. This is the message of Buddha: If you’re enlightened and you die, it’s finally over. You can never be reincarnated again.

Keeping the spinning top in motion.

So my problems seemed to be solved. If I ever had problems with my teenage ego, the convincing Buddhist answer was that there is no problem at all, because the “one” who could have any problems simply didn’t exist!

Yet it became harder and harder to remain in this state of consciousness or attitude. The ur­ban Buddhist doesn’t live under the most ideal circumstances for medi­ta­tion. Budd­hism is really for monks and nuns! And I wanted to be one. Everyday life was more and more dis­turbing to me. My family didn’t know what I was really doing when I meditated and why I did it, but they became more and more worried about me.

At the same time I realized that they (like most of the people around me) were totally enslaved in the illusions of their personality. Their feelings, lusts, joys, and problems completely ruled their lives — and I couldn’t help them. They were simply unable to meditate or to follow any philosophy. I met many people and saw them living in the fire of the lusts and illusions — just like I did it before.

If someone is an awakened Buddha, he or she has no real relation to people, only pity as such. It is not a sympathy or compassion, because these would suppose or presume the acceptance of the reality of any “me” and “they.” So I was a bit sorry for them and hoped they would awaken in one of their future lives. Buddhism is an elitist religion. I knew it, and Buddha had nothing to say to my family and people like them.

At the doorstep.

There was another hard experience, too. Late one summer evening, after a long study at the Institute of Buddhology, while I was leaving the lecture hall out in the fresh air, as I lifted my eyes and stared into the space something became clear. The sky was black as a hole, and I experienced such an emptiness as never before. It was not just the empty, dark sky, but also a nihil in me and in the world. I saw the overwhelming emp­tiness behind all the things and happenings and people of this world. I stood at the doorstep. One motion, a yes to that reality, and I would be “thrown out to space” forever. No more world of illusions and pains...

And I became sad. A question arose in me: “Is that all?” Is this wonderful nature — the trees, the birds, the human body — just a “materialized illusion,” just “bunch of illusions, dreaming about their own existence?” Is this emptiness really the only issue behind the world? Did I experience the whole reality — or can there be some­thing or someone beyond what my mind could ever experience in meditation or in any other way? The concept of “God” was merely a “state of consciousness” for me, some­thing that I could and should realize in my mind, and not a person.

The call.

Of course, I meditated all the disturbing, karma-making quest­ions out of my mind, or at least I tried to. I reached a level where I had no more interest in my big library, and I wanted to give away or sell all the books. I also lost my interest in the masters and tutors, because I just wanted to live in a monastery as a monk. So I had to pull my­self together in order to be able to remain in the Buddha-attitude.

One day I got a phone call. It was a martial-arts friend who had written to me from Germany a few months before, saying that he “now has another view about such things” (I’d told him in my letter that I was to be a monk) and that he would talk about it with me when he arrived. This “other view” disturbed me a lot, because I read the Buddhist truth in all religion. He invited me to his apartment for tea.

The Presence.

I had some bad feelings about the meeting, but I knew I had to go. I thought that I could be well-balanced and undisturbed no matter what might happen. I took the meeting as his chance to step forward on the karmic spiral. So I went to see him. I recognized at once that he had changed somehow. I wouldn’t have cared much, but he showed me his new Christian books about “the Gospel and world reli­gions,” the “last days,” etc. I really needed to pull myself together — not because he was so con­vin­cing (he wasn’t at all!), or because he could show me the logical errors of the Buddhist philosophy (he didn’t know Buddhism). He just spoke about ... I really don’t remember about what, but at that moment it was all the same for me. I stared at him, as if I were listening to his words; I nodded repeatedly, he just spoke, and we drank tea. I didn’t react to anything, because my attention was held fast by something else: I realized that there was Someone else in the room. I felt the mighty Presence of Someone, and I knew it was God, because He wanted me to know that He was there...

I tried to exclude His Presence from my mind. I just knew that this wasn’t an illusion or some kind of hallucination. I realized that this mighty Presence was uncontrollable; it was beyond my mind. I tried to control myself in front of my friend, and after half an hour I said good-bye.

From Hell to Heaven.

Two days of hell followed the meeting. Arriving home that evening I wanted to cry out: “There is a God! He is not a mere state of consciousness, but a Person. The Judge of my life, of my thoughts, words, and deeds!” I saw all my sins — not “karmic errors,” but sins against Him and my family members and others. I saw myself with His eyes, and it was terrible. There was no sense in meditation. The whole Buddhist existentialism disap­peared, all the ef­fects of the meditation were lost, and the hard, long work I had invested in myself became the deepest selfishness even in my own eyes.

And then, on the third day when my friend and I met again, I heard the Good News, too: The Judge of my life died for me, instead of me, because He loved me so much and didn’t want to punish me. Jesus took all the punishment I deserved on Himself at the cross, and He died instead of me — yes, because of me. And He has risen, He lives, He is here, and I can say Him: Thank you, Lord!

Oh I said yes! I looked into His eyes, and I found in them not only His hatred against sin, but His unspeakable love for the sinner as well. I capitulated before this deadly love.

All the burden I had been carrying for 24 years fell down forever. Since that moment I have known what it means to be free. I stood up from the throne of my life, crouched down to the leg of His throne and looked up to the One who is and was and will be always the King of Kings. And I praised Him.

The whole reality!

Reality is simply more than a Buddhist could ever experience with his human mind through any meditative technique. Atheistic Buddhism could only be true and real in a world without God. Yet there is a God, so Buddhism is not realist and cannot claim to know the whole reality. Buddhism is the illusion of the non-exis­tence of God.

Buddha presumed that there was no absolute, uncontingent, and personal God, and he looked upon man as someone without contact with God. Thus, the final result of the Buddhist philosophical and meditative worldview is predictable. If a human being in absolute loneliness analyzes himself, he will not find an ab­solute, unchanging, independent, and unconditioned part in himself (and of course he will not find absolute “ego”).

It is because we are the creatures of the only absolute, infinite, unchanging, independent, and uncontingent Being. We are created for de­pen­dence upon God and for relationship with God and people. If we deny this we deny the very basis of our existence, and without these relationships we destroy ourselves.

Buddha could analyze my soul and body and cut me into small pieces, asking: “Is this your ego? Is that your ego?” And he would be right — I cannot find any absolute identity in myself. Yet I have a real identity, and it is this: God adopted me, and I became a child of God through Jesus Christ.

If we are totally impersonal and detached like a Buddha, we become like cap­sules: we become incapable of real human relations. Maybe we cannot hate, but we can not love, either! If hatred is condemned as “just one illusory side of the ultimate reality without contradictions,” then love is just another condemned illusory side as well.

Yet God exists as the ultimate, absolute Someone. That fact is the very basis of the claim that our relative, dependent, and conditioned individuality and personality — our talents, tasks, wills, relations, pains, frustrations, our minds and our bodies — have meaning. That fact is the very basis of the claim that we and the things around us are real as we experience them in everyday life in a non-meditative state of consciousness. Yes, only in Him do the parts of the whole reality have meaning. And though this reality is inside, it must have a godly influence on us and the world around.

Only He can convince us.

There is Someone beyond every human capacity who knows us, speaks to us, and the greatest wonder is, loves us more than life. I cannot convince anyone of that. I only know that God was able to convince me about His existence and His wonderful character. After thirteen years of Christian experience I just praise Him for all of His love and mercy.

If you don’t know Him yet, please give yourself a chance: Ask Him to reveal Himself to you, too. He will do it somehow, in the way He knows you need it.

If you look for Him, you will find Him.

   Even if you do not look for Him, He will find you.

If you knock on His door, He will not send you away.

   Even if you have sent Him away, He will knock on your door again.

He loves you, and that’s all you have. Here and now and forever.

András Szalai is the director of Apológia Kutatóközpont (CFAR Hungary) in Budapest.
Support CFAR Hungary | CFAR Hungary, Affiliate Profile | Learn More About Hungary