CLEARWATER – Bill Melms was raised as a Protestant, but as a teen, he didn’t stick with the faith. He eventually got to the point where he started to question aspects of the church’s teachings.
“When I got old enough to think for myself, I had one of those ‘Now wait a minute ….’ moments, and became an agnostic,” he recalled.
But as it turns out, his lack of commitment to faith didn’t last, either. In the 1960s, Melms got drafted into the Vietnam War, and as an American soldier fighting in the jungles of that Southeast Asia country, he had yet another epiphany.
“They say there’s no atheists in foxholes,” he said. “We were suffering from rocket attacks then. There’s nothing like a rocket attacking you to put the fear of God in you.”
Melms said he quickly became what he called the most religious person in the military. The challenge, though, was settling on a particular religion. That, as it turns out, was the toughest part of his spiritual journey.
He went back to Protestantism, then drifted into Catholicism, then Judaism. Each time, he said, he wandered back to that ‘Now wait a minute ….’ moment.
Then he had a final epiphany.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m in Vietnam, and it’s a Buddhist country,’ so I became Buddhist, too,” he said.
He found himself now fascinated by the teachings by Buddha – and for once, he didn’t have a ‘Now wait a minute ….’ moment.
“When I got to the Buddhist text, that didn’t happen,” he said. “It all just made sense, and I started looking into it more and more. The Bible is easy. You just read it and you’re done. If we had a Bible in Buddhism, it would be five times as long. Buddhism is like an onion, you peel it back and there’s another layer and another layer.”
On Sunday, Melms talked about his spiritual journey, and his discovery of and lifelong commitment to Buddhism, at the annual regional gathering of the Tampa Bay chapter of American Mensa, held at the Holiday Inn at Clearwater.
Melms’ discussion on his “Intro to Buddhism” focused on both his trips to China and how he practices his faith in the Tampa area.
What’s he’s learned over the years, Melms said, is that the general public has a better sense of what Buddhism is not about, rather than what it actually represents.
“There are common misconceptions about Buddhism,” he said. “Like we are all vegetarians. We have no dietary restrictions.”
There’s an even bigger misconception, he added.
“The big surprise is it’s not a religion at all,” Melms said. “There is no God. How can you have a religion without God?”
Consider it more of a belief system, he said, that believes people can evolve.
“Christianity says you have a permanent soul,” Melms said. “Buddhism says ‘No you don’t.’ Trying to find out who you are is very nebulous. Of course you exist, you are something, but nothing is permanent. It’s all subject to change.”
That’s also part of how Buddhism looks at the concept of suffering – and how to cope with it.
“All suffering is based on delusion,” he said. “If you weren’t deluded based on the nature of reality, there wouldn’t be suffering. One of the noble truths of Buddhism is you can end suffering. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. You need to see reality for what it is.”
Educating oneself is good place to start, he added.
“To say we don’t know much – the amount you don’t know about the universe is staggering,” Melms added. “What’s the nature of happiness? You better find out or you’re not going to be able to find it.”
Buddhism, Melms said, is “science-based, and about action-reaction. Everything you do has an effect. There is a cause and effect. The present didn’t get here by accident.”
As part of that, Buddhists do not believe there is a logical and sensible motive for war, he said.
“The big difference between Buddhism and other faiths is we don’t fight,” Melms said. “The other religions love to fight. The Protestants fight the Catholics and the Muslims fight everybody. Buddhists just don’t like to fight. We just don’t want anything to do with wars. Wars are pretty stupid. We can all see that. But we do it anyway. Why? Because it’s our team against your team. Send your best and brightest out to fight wars. War is obsolete today, but our psychopathic leaders haven’t figured that out yet.”
Instead, there is much in Buddhism that looks at personal growth, he said.
“Everything is numbered,” he said. “Nothing is permanent. There is nothing that doesn’t change. You have pain, but then suffering is different from pain. Suffering is an emotional response. It’s not there by accident. Suffering is a thing we do. It’s a survival tool. It’s necessary to life.”
Buddism is also a fun religion, he added.
“In Tampa we have a Thai Temple that is very beautiful,” Melms said. “It’s not like Catholics where they scream, ‘You need to repent!’ No, in our temple we laugh and have a lot of fun.”
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