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Embrace the unknown:
Taking a leap introduced

An introduction by Fransiscus Ismaël

I grew up in a small village, in the north of The Netherlands. Most of my early childhood took place in the surrounding area, with all the wonderful meadows, forests and a lake. This is where I played many different sports, shared time with my friends, went to school and attended mass in our Catholic Church on Sundays. 

Though my father came originally from the big city of Rotterdam in the southwest, we were raised as part of the ethnic group called the Frisians – with their own language, culture, traditions and so on. My mother and her family all lived nearby. In fact, my maternal grandparents’ family tree could be traced back to this area for centuries. 

Except perhaps for the uncommon journeys abroad to other countries & cultures our parents took me and my three older brothers on, nothing from the outside pointed to the possibility of moving into the world of philosophy and Buddhism later in my life. Yet, that is exactly what happened. 

When? What? Why?

When did I start to ask questions about life and the world I lived in? What caused me to do so? Moreover, at which point – and why – did I decide to take a leap into a Buddhist path? 

I have often asked my mother whether she ever imagined the kind of path that I went on in my life. Now, she says, it seems to make sense. But back then, when I was a little kid? She said she does not know. Neither do I.

Was it the divorce of my parents, when I was about 13? The many moments that I had alone with my mother as being the youngest, while my brothers were already going to secondary school and, later, high school or university? Or maybe when I decided to study Sportsmarketing & Management in Rotterdam and live on my own when I was about 17, where I was completely absorbed by the book Sophie’s world? That last one seems a logical and decisive moment, but why did that book speak to me so strongly? How did I get that book in the first place? 

Many years later I went through some of the materials my mem (Frisian for ‘mother’) had kept from primary school. There were reports, drawings, a pillow I had made and many other things. As I was going through the box I was suddenly surprised to find three pages taken from a much larger booklet. Clearly not by accident, because they were neither the first pages nor the last, but somewhere from the middle. Furthermore, I apparently had underlined some things. These pages were all about Buddhism. I was astonished. Did I have an interest in things like Buddhism already when I was a little kid? Had I always been a philosopher? 

Causes & conditions

I do remember that I had many moments in which I felt alone. Not that I had no friends. In fact, I had many friends and my mem often tells me how joyful I was in my childhood. She used to sit on my bed, stroking my back as I was falling asleep. At least, I pretended. I always looked so content and smiled in those moments according to my mother. I can still feel the warmth and happiness myself. 

Still, something was out of place. There was an inner world that I seemed incapable to talk about with others. Though it surprises many people till this very day, I have always been more introvert. What contributed to this, I guess, is that I was not taught to express my feelings & emotions. Or there was simply no place for that. And though the family of my mother was very loving and warm, and I found great joy in all the days spent with my grandparents, we did certainly not speak about inner struggles. That included my brothers, despite the fact that we often played more board games and so on with each other than with our friends. Or, we all joined in with a football game on the playing field next to our house.

Later in life I did become aware that our parents raised us somewhat differently than what was considered ‘normal’ in our village. Something that was reflected in the friends they had and their children that became our friends. Some might say we belonged to an ‘elite’ or had such a view on the world. I am not sure. Some of my parents’ friends were perhaps among the higher educated and had different jobs than many others in the countryside. Combined with the many holidays to foreign places, including daring adventures like climbing snowy mountains, rafting on wild rivers and staying at bed & breakfasts, that could explain why we became perhaps open minded and looking for more beyond the borders of our familiar world. 

At the same time, several of my uncles & aunts were farmers. Just like my maternal grandparents had been in the past, and like some of the parents’ of my friends from school were those days. I loved spending time with my grandfather in the garden and going to a friend for horse-riding. Although I have lived more years in big cities by now, walking or biking through the countryside gives me a lot of joy. And returning to ‘our’ province Fryslân (Frisian name for ‘Friesland’) every now and again continues to feel like home. 

Going to church might certainly have contributed to an interest in a possible deeper meaning of life and questions about ‘good’ and ‘evil’. However, we stopped doing this when my father left and we all lived in another village about 17 kilometers away with our mother. For her, she told me later, it was also more important that we were familiar with Catholicism, which was an important part of family of her, my mem’s five brothers and ‘the’ family in its entirety. My brothers and I all have been ‘servants’ and part of the youth choir. Whether we wanted to believe, was something we needed to decide for ourselves. 

I knew for my father this was different. He had been a devout Catholic, studied theology next to running his own business as a driving instructor. He continued to be a strong believer after the divorce with my mother, though he converted and is nowadays a protestant. 

Whether it was because of religion, a particular view on life, personal characters or everything combined, I do recall that on Sundays the entire family of my mom gathered at my grandparents’ home. Though as kids, including all my cousins, we often played either upstairs or outside, I am aware that – as being among the older grandchildren – me and my brothers often sat with the adults too. While remaining silent and having tea with cookies, I listened to the political debates and other big issues they discussed together. I can hardly imagine this not to have an impact on a child growing up. 

Once I went to secondary school, I was also more interested in subjects related to the humanities than any other. Though me and my brothers did well at school in general, supported by our parents that made sure we had a good education. Which also meant that we all went to a secondary school further away from home than many of our friends from primary school. At the time that school was in ‘the big city’ Snits (Frisian for ‘Sneek’), though I would now say it is more a big town (it has about 34.000 inhabitants today, probably less back then). 

There is one more thing that strongly shaped my life as a child and adolescent: the world of sports. Like my brothers I played tennis, volleyball and football. Whether for training or in our free-time one could often find us on the playing field. Besides this, I learned ice-skating as well, something we did on natural ice during winter often, and loved to go running for long distances already as a kid. In my case, I also continued with gymnastics, which only came to an end because of a change of teacher and once I moved away from the town where I was born. 

With my father we often watched football matches, sometimes on a big screen in a pub in our village. And we could always find our mom in the sportshall or at the tennisclub, whether we needed to play a match ourselves or not. One can easily see how this led me to study Sportsmarketing & Management. 

Yet, it was also during my early days as a student that I started to keep a diary. I wrote every day. Often before I went to sleep. These diaries are perhaps the most precious among the few things I still possess. They have been stored safely in the house of my mom & stepfather. Perhaps someday I will re-read all of them and see what I can learn about this period in my life. Though I remember clearly how, other than many of my fellow students, followed the news, had subscriptions to various magazines, became concerned about the health of our planet and especially the suffering we caused to animals (and, thus, soon became vegetarian). 

Reading Sophie’s world made me want to study and teach philosophy. I thought something like ‘How can one possibly not think about these questions? Philosophy is the way to develop a happier life and make our world a better place for everyone.’ Besides this, I recall clearly that I read about Tibet. The political situation made me feel sad and there was something about the pictures of the Himalayas and young Tibetan-Buddhist monks that gave me a sense of home. Why? Past lives, karma, Buddhists might say. My friends that follow one of the Abrahamic faiths, will argue it is God’s plan and destiny. Who knows. I certainly do not.

Leaping into a spiritual path

Maybe I will never know exactly why, or how come – which is not the same question! – I decided to walk a Buddhist path in this life. The fact is that I did. Perhaps life is also not as logical as we often imagine it to be. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche might say life is closer to chaos and it is up to ourselves to become the best possible version of who we want to be. From a Buddhist perspective we can say that life is a continuous process of dying and rebirth. If we let go of our beliefs, habits, ego-clinging and so on of yesterday, we can let our potential for joy and compassion flourish fully now, in this very moment. 

In any case, we often change course in life without really knowing why. When asked, we give all kinds of reasons. But, as many research points out, it is very doubtful whether those are the real causes behind our actions. Some things remain hidden or mysterious. I know, for example, that during weekdays I often visited neighbours in my village (till we moved) that were like second parents to me in the evening. Being with them certainly affected my life in many ways. But nobody, not even my mom, really knows how those visits came into being. 

Moreover, and maybe most importantly, there is always an element of choice involved. And maybe we make choices not so much because we know where we are heading and how to get there. But because we do know that our current familiar life is no longer fulfilling. For this reason we resign from our jobs and start a new one. Or we switch one study-program, like physics, to another one, say psychology. Or we fall in love with someone and decide to start a new life somewhere together. 

Although there are no doubt causes & conditions that lead us to feel for such a change, there is always some space for us to make a choice in the present moment. No matter how small. It is really always up to us. If we decide to leave behind the world that is familiar to us and step into, or at least explore, something new, we take a leap

I have taken many such leaps in my short life. Moving from Fryslân to the big city of Rotterdam for example. Deciding to finish Sportsmarketing & Management, but continue to study Philosophy at university. Starting a romantic relationship, and ending it after a long period of time. I even gave up on being a teacher of philosophy in secondary school, something that I had wished to do for years and was so extremely fortunate to actually be hired as such while I was still studying. 

A leap, however, does not necessarily mean you make a ‘big’ choice. In fact, we take a leap on a daily basis. For example by trying a new cooking recipe, starting a new project or in surprising a good friend with a gift without knowing he or she will like it. These are all small leaps perhaps, but help to get a feeling and see how we take them all the time. It, then, becomes interesting to see whether we can do so with more mindfulness. That way we can learn about ourselves, our choices, and make more conscious decisions about our lives. This will help us when we are confronted with bigger choices and more fundamental or foundational questions that arise. 

I loved teaching, being a tutor to my students and my job as a teacher in general. It felt meaningful to me. At the same time my heart kept pointing in a different direction. Once I visited an exhibition with a dear colleague and friend about Buddhism in Antwerp (Belgium). I was sitting in front of a shrine with many Tibetan books on the sides. She saw me, sat down as well and asked what I was wondering about. I told her I was moved by this feeling of ‘home’ and could easily imagine myself studying & practicing buddhism fulltime. Perhaps while making a living as a writer. Or become a Tibetan-buddhist monk. She said she could feel and see me do that. Earlier experiences in taking a leap, be it big or small, gave me the courage and confidence to pursue this. If I had not taken that leap, it would have been unlikely for you to read these words. 

Personally I have the impression we all come across moments in which we wonder: who am I? What is the meaning of this life, if there is any? How do I find happiness, or at least get rid of my suffering? If I let go of the world that is so familiar to me and all the ideas I have about myself and others, what might I discover? It is in these moments, I would say, that we take a leap into what we can call a spiritual path. 

Where does it take us from there? In some ways we can only find out for ourselves. At the same time, many have taken such a path before us. All kinds of traditions came into being with certain views & practices, like the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. There is a lot of wisdom that can be found in them and that we can learn from. Some explore several of those traditions before they choose a specific path, others feel a ‘click’ with a teacher they decide to follow for the rest of their life and some shape their own ways. 

There is no path better than another one, if you ask me. It is just different. And each of us needs to find it’s own. Mine happened to be a buddhist one. Though I question nowadays what the label ‘buddhist’ actually means. What makes you a Buddhist? Certainly not the label. But then, what does? What makes someone ‘Jewish’, ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Hindu’, ‘New Age’, ‘Spiritual’ or whatever label one might use? We can even ask whether the whole idea of a ‘path’ is correct. 

Putting aside these questions for the moment, what appears to be the common ground behind taking a leap, is that we seek happiness while we try to avoid suffering. This is true for everyone. All humans on this planet, but also all other sentient beings. No matter how small. What does this mean for our daily life, in the world of today? How can this notion of taking a leap help us? What are the real questions people deal with on their path? And to what extent can Buddhism be of support, to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike? Those questions are at the very heart of Taking a Leap and guiding the interviews that I conduct with members of Nalandabodhi. 

Nalandabodhi & Taking a Leap

Nalandabodhi is an international community, founded by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, dedicated to bringing the wisdom and compassion of awakening into today’s world. How I ended up as a member of Nalandabodhi is a long story. In a nutshell I was volunteering for another Buddhist group in Rotterdam at a Buddha Festival. There I encountered people from Nalandabodhi and spoke with them about many things. They were about to start a new group for ‘their’ Path of Study which appealed to me. Once home, I watched videos of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and more about the practicalities of joining that group. I experienced a strong sense of joy and registered the very same day. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Currently I am both a member of Nalandabodhi and a student of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. While I joined the Three Paths Residential Program – next to Study there is a Path of Meditation and a Path of Mindful Activity – at ‘our’ center NalandaWest in Seattle, a pandemic (Covid-19) broke out. It is during that time that I was asked to start online conversations with other members of Nalandabodhi from all over the world. The podcast on our SoundCloud and written stories that can be found on our site are an outcome of those conversations. 

In these conversations I try to figure out why and when people leap into a Buddhist path and the relevance of Buddhist teachings for the world of today. Soon I discovered that Buddhism might make the most sense to me and my fellow-members, but ultimately the path seems to point towards reality itself. The Buddhist path is just one of many we can take towards the truth. To recognize who we really are, and how we can move away from suffering and towards happiness.  In Buddhist terms: leave the world of samsara and cross the river to nirvana. It is also in this spirit that I ended each conversation with a playful reference to the Buddhist monk & great teacher Shantideva. Whether we see ourselves as Buddhists or not: 

May these conversations be like a boat, a bridge, a passage, 
for those taking a leap to the further shore.