Southern Baptist to Buddhist
The “USMC” tattoo on the large, well-muscled arm that extends from the bare shoulder of the Buddhist robe hints at an unusual tale.
Bushi Yamato Damashii pads softly on bare feet around Daishin Buddhist Temple and Mindfulness Center on U.S. 64 outside of Thomasville. The temple-home mixes elements of each. The smell of incense fills the air, bells sound softly and lighted candles flicker around Buddha statues, artificial flowers and words and pictures of wisdom posted on the walls. In the back of the temple area, soft wing-back chairs are arranged to ease face-to-face conversation, and lights flicker in an artificial fireplace. A miniature pinscher barks its greeting, and a slot in the temple door is lined with hair from the resident cat, whose scratching post has its spot in the temple.
Bushi, a Buddhist monk, former Southern Baptist, Marine and martial artist, seems happy with the niche he’s created for himself. He chuckles easily at his journey, which now seems to have been mapped with purpose that’s still making itself known.
Bushi, age 43, was born Torrence Marquis Ramsey in affluent West Palm Beach, Fla. His mother’s six-figure salary earned taking care of finances for a clothing design company assured that the family lived well, even though his father had a $4,000-a-day drug habit for 15 years. His father has been clean for 19 years, now.
“I had a tough upbringing as a young black man in West Palm Beach,” Bushi said. “The desire to be free and independent had a drawing. I saw friends go to jail for drugs and had friends who died in street violence.”
Bushi’s maternal grandmother ruled the family. No question.
A primitive Baptist strong enough to fight for — and win — the right, as a woman, to preach, she made it clear that the Baptist way was the only way. His fraternal grandmother was a Jehovah’s Witness who said the right words but didn’t necessarily live by them.
Between his grandmothers and his view of street life filtered through his addict father and friends, Bushi felt emotional dissatisfaction, and he questioned and fought what was taught to him.
His mother seemed most tuned into what he was feeling.
“She always said I was an old spirit,” Bushi said. “She said, ‘You question too much; you need to trust God. ...’ I knew I consciously had questions. I don’t think I knew how deep the need was. I was very elementary.
“Now I know that it’s one thing to wake up in the morning and look into the mirror and see yourself. It’s another thing to close your eyes facing the mirror and know yourself. One is sensory; the other is deeply conscious.”
Bushi began listening to and reading about different points of view. For a while, he was interested in culinary arts and wanted to be a chef. When he was 17, his mother signed for him to join the Marines. He knew, even then, that he wanted to escape, travel and see the world, which he certainly did. With the Marines, he visited 34 countries and saw combat in the early 1990s in Kuwait and southern Iraq. During his last year as a Marine, he served with a United Nations Peacekeeping force.
During a trip home when he was 19, Bushi visited with a former schoolmate whose grandparents were Vietnamese, and the schoolmate began talking about meditating and the sense of peace he gained from the practice.
“That was my epiphany,” Bushi said. “The seeds were sewn. I wanted to know more. ... I had grown frustrated when I went home because I knew I would get religion thrown down my throat. I had always had a different view of religion, and that got bigger and bigger because of the different things I saw. The source of humanity began to stand out to me, as opposed to the differences in religion.”
He began practicing meditation, but quietly and unnoticed. He also began to realize that elements of his life were beginning to point in a focused direction.
As a 20-year-old Marine, Bushi was sent to Japan to study martial arts through the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. As he honed his muscles and reflexes, he also began to focus on the spiritual side of martial arts. While in Japan, he visited the famous Myoshinji Daishin Temple in Kyoto to explore the connection between Buddhism, the meditation he’d been practicing and his martial arts training.
“I was floored — absolutely floored — at the temple’s grace, tranquility and peace,” he said. “Even though there were people coming in and out, it was almost like they were in my peripheral vision. At that moment, I said, ‘Yeah, this is something big.’ That was the breaking point for me. I still get almost like a lump rising in me when I think about that moment. I felt a great, deep sense of freedom in my soul, and I hadn’t even committed to become Buddhist.
“I guess that’s what I was looking for my whole life. The hard task was, how do I now contain this sense of longing to break tradition.”
As a member of the Second Marine Division based at Camp Lejeune, Bushi came to North Carolina on leave when he was 21. He went with a friend to Rockingham, where the friend’s girlfriend lived. In Rockingham, he fell in love at first sight with Christine, the woman he married six months, to the day, later. Shortly after, he left the Marines, grateful for the experiences and travels, but ready to get on with his life.
Bushi worked at a warehouse and received a bachelor’s degree in theology from the University of Southern California, through what then was called “distance learning.” In those days when computers were scarce, he had to travel to Lejeune for the online courses, and he also taught at Union Bible Institute (now Shaw Divinity School) in Raleigh. He remembers being called a daredevil for the amount of spent on the road. He has since received two master’s degrees and a doctoral degree in theology.
Then, he wanted to be a Christian minister.
“I probably would have identified myself as a Christian Buddhist at that time, but I dared not do that; it wasn’t acceptable. My parents would have gone out of their minds, and even my wife may not have understood,” he said. His wife was a member of the AME Zion Church. In 1999, a friend who was a minister asked Bushi to come to Thomasville to help with his ministry.
Once in this area, Bushi taught martial arts and served as a pastor at area churches, including Cedar Street Church of God in High Point. He still, however, continued to quietly study Buddhism and found his way to Lexington Buddhist Center and Chua Quan Am Buddhist Temple in Greensboro.
During that period, Bushi developed his own personalized, way of integrating what he learned. He found parallels between Christianity and Buddhism. For instance, Buddah taught that compassion was the greatest goal of existence; Jesus taught being merciful and forgiveness.
“Many of the world’s great religions all say the same things; they just say it different, and those parallels work for me. So often we get so caught up in the title and methodology that we forget the message,” he said. “I was always the kid who said to myself, ‘There’s got to be something we’re all missing. We’re all human.’ ”
When he taught, Bushi incorporated the teachings of Buddha into his Christian messages, and he called the amalgam “sacred humanity.” Buddhism teaches that the aim of everyday life is to be at peace with yourself and that everyone has the potential to be at peace with others. Being at peace with each other is where the beginning of suffering ends.
Six years ago, Bushi came out as a Buddhist.
He first told his wife, who knew he meditated and went on retreats. She accepted his decision, even though she didn’t fully understand.
He took minor vows to be an apprentice of the temple in Lexington, and sometimes he studied in Greensboro. The monks gave him study materials and listened to him, more than they lectured him. He also studied online and devoured any resources he could find.
“It was like my mother said, ‘You ask too many questions,’ ” he said. “It was easy for me to learn.”
He became an advocate for controversial issues, including homosexuality and women’s rights — anything that spoke to the equality and humanity of all people. The stereotypes that applied to him — being a black man, a Marine, a martial artist, a Southern Baptist — helped him understand the seemingly disparate elements of life.
“If you do something odd enough, you will be noted, so that was helpful to me coming out as a Buddhist. It also gave me the opportunity to share as a Buddhist,” Bushi said.
On June 1, 2012, Bushi was ordained as a daishin (Japanese for “big mind”) Buddhist monk at the temple outside Thomasville, which was packed with well-wishers. After his novice period, he was given the name Bushi Yamato Damashii, which means, “Warrior of the Ancient Japanese Spirit.”
In keeping with the pattern of Bushi’s life, the temple previously was a Baptist church at which Bushi was the minister.
The family lives in an area adjacent to the temple-proper. His wife, Christine Ramsey, is a student at Davidson County Community College studying human services. Their sons, Torrence Marquis Ramsey II, age 14, and Isaiah Ramsey, 11, attend local schools. The boys are taught both Buddhism and Christianity, and they may chose any religion — or combination of religions — they wish when they grown up. Christine’s son and Bushi’s stepson, Aaron Davis, 24, lives in Japan and works for the Japanese government. Bushi and the rest of the family visit as often as they can.
“We’re raising the kids as Buddhist, and they’re taught the value of Jesus’ teachings,” Bushi said. “Their mom and I teach them compassion, wisdom, science, literature. We do not teach them what to think, but how to think. They say both Buddhist blessings and grace.”
The temple is open to anyone of any faith who would like to enter, whether for meditation, teaching or conversation with the man who well knows how to listen to ideas outside the norm. Doors open early each morning for meditation, and anywhere from five to 35 people come daily. At 11 a.m. each Sunday, a service is held, and Bushi lectures.
“It’s just like the Southern Baptists,” he said. “People are accustomed to Sunday hours. ... I teach them, here you’ll find yourself. I teach that here the opportunity to discover who you are as a unique individual is given to you.”
Bushi does not call those who come to the temple “parishioners,” “followers” or a “congregation.” He simply refers to them as “people.” In keeping with Buddhist tradition, the people support the monk and the temple with gifts of food, drink and money for utilities. Bushi took a vow of detachment, and he requires little, he said. When he became a monk, he gave all his money to his wife and most of his possessions to the people.
Even though Bushi is physically settled with his family at the temple-home in Thomasville, he likely will never stop questioning, learning or honing his beliefs. To him, Buddhism isn’t a religion, but more of a practical discourse.
“There’s nothing to convert to,” he said. “The more practical our teaching becomes, people will see more. ... Buddhism has suggestions, as opposed to rules.”
He describes himself as an idealist to the core and a radical optimist.
And he shows himself — whether dressed in his Buddhist robe or in street clothes — around town and welcomes the curious and their questions.
“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s a real monk,’ and they’ll ask questions,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll (mimics bowing their heads and hold their hands together) and say, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that.’ Their acceptance is genuinely a product of change in the world. People are looking for peace, acceptance and ease.”
Each year, he enters a local chili cook-off, and he won a trophy for his vegetarian version.
Most weeks, Bushi, wearing his robe, and the Rev. Mike Lamm, the minister at First Presbyterian Church in Thomasville, go to lunch at a different restaurant in Thomasville.
“He’s a 68-year-old white male from Texas, and I’m a 43-year-old African-American from south Florida,” Bushi said. “We purposely go to restaurants and show ourselves because Mike, like myself, believes Christ wasn’t talking about regulations, but to have compassion and accept one another, and I think Buddhism teaches the same thing. That’s what religion should be about.”
Bushi is working on a book, titled “Black, Bald, and Buddhist: A Christian Exile’s Story,” and he already has a publishing deal.
“My life’s work is to have religious communion in many of the world’s religious communities, so we can lay aside our differences,” he said. “The greatest thing you can do for yourself is find yourself and be happy with yourself.”
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Did you know ... ?
• Daishin Buddhist robes range in color from burgundy to orange to yellow — the colors of fall — to represent change and evolution, with the goal of becoming better and more clear.
• The burning of incense represents a clear mind, with which there’s a sweet feeling (aroma) when things are going well. It is burned as a reminder to strive for peace and create peace within yourself.
• Monks do not wear shoes in the temple, and they shave their heads and faces as a sign of respect and to bare themselves in the wisdom of the temple. Shoes protect the feet, and a temple should be a place of safety where protection is unnecessary. A bald head is a symbol of comfort and safety in a temple.
• One shoulder of a monk’s robe traditionally is absent. In ancient India, when people from aristocrats to paupers entered the presence of the magi or king, they bared their shoulder to show respect.
• Daishin Buddhism allows for some eating of meat, but Bushi Yamato Damashii mostly eats fish and vegetables.
• Daishin Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but not in the sense of coming back as a roach or fly if you’ve done something horrible. They believe in karma, that people live again through their behavior as viewed by the people who knew them or emulate their good qualities.
• Many Zen Buddhists are married.
• “Namaste” is a Sanskrit blessing that means, “I honor the peace, presence and energy within you.”
• Although Bushi and many Buddhists study martial arts, Bushi believes that fighting is primitive and that to harm another person is to harm yourself. It is more challenging to use words and compassion in instances of conflict.