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Buddhism in the News


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Are You a Buddhist, and Does it Matter?

I get questions from people from time to time about how they should "become" a Buddhist. This isn't a silly question because a lot of religions have a very intricate process one must go through before they can call themselves a member of that faith. Unless you're becoming a monk there isn't exactly the same process in Buddhism. Traditionally a practitioner became a monk after taking formal refuge in the "Three Jewels" (The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha). The idea of refuge is vital to understanding these. By coming to the monastery the novice was renouncing the failed appeasements of the world and embracing the shelter or refuge and help of the Buddha's example, his teachings (the Dharma) and the community of monks (Sangha).

It is the same for us today. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels isn't something to check off your "Things to do before I become a Buddhist" list but rather a personal acknowledgment that your life is out of control (like is the case for all of us) and that you need help. The refuges are meant to remind us that there is a way out and that it has been done before by Buddha but that the way out requires complete surrender. However, it's not a surrender to Buddha himself but rather to his example because Buddha isn't a savior like Jesus. We are saying, "O.k., I give up in trying to find relief externally, and figuring this out on my own. So, I am trusting in Buddha's example that it can help me as well." So, in essence every time we recite refuge in the jewels we are reminding ourselves of that reality. For, It is only when we let go that we find true freedom. Or, as the wise (yet rather crazy), "Master" Tyler Durden says in the movie Fight Club, "It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything."

Then there are of course the "The Five Precepts" vows, which are a list of commitments that have been shown before by well-known monks to reduce suffering but they aren't a "naughty list." There isn't anyone that's going to be checking up on you if you don't keep all the precepts because, frankly, that would be counterproductive because in Buddhism there is no one that you need to please, appease or obey. Buddhism is the classic, "D.I.Y" or "Do it Yourself" motto because no amount of bowing, vowing or wowing is going to end your suffering. You and your karma are your own judge and savior.

I'm not saying you won't need teachers and other helpful guides such as the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path. I'm simply saying that being a Buddhist is not about checking off boxes on a list and off you go to Buddhist retirement. If you look for Buddha--you won't find him anywhere but inside you. That means that to be a Buddhist, one only has to be a human being who has seen the useless help that the external world offers and actively live your life to find relief from within yourself with the example of Buddha as your guide. You have to live it to be it is another way of saying it.

Another Buddhist I was reading today inspired this post with a story about her desire to "become" a Buddhist and her teachers response to that desire. She wanted to know when she'd be ready to become a Buddhist. Her teacher wisely replied, "You know you're ready when becoming a Buddhist is simply a recognition of something that has already happened." So, perhaps the question isn't, "How do I become a Buddhist" but rather, "How do I reduce my suffering?" Because it is that goal, which defines most "Buddhists." If you follow the Buddha's example, seek to put his teachings into practice and ask for help, support and guidance from the wider Buddhist community (Sangha) then I'm sure you'll have your question answered by your own actions.

~Peace to all beings~

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Bonsai Doug said...

"If you look for Buddha--you won't find him anywhere but inside you."

In the book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buddhism," the question is asked: "What's the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist?"

"The non-Buddhist thinks there's a difference."

Lynda Halliger-Otvos said...

Excellent post, sir. You have acctualized some thoughts for me here; thank you.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ James
Wow, this post is a perfect match with my recent post on Am I a Buddhist? I think we largely agree (if you have time, please check out the diagram).
My post is illustrating that what you skillfully labeled "the check list" can be distracting and deceptive, though it can be useful.

Sabio Lantz said...

I commented here earlier today but don't see my comment. So I am testing to see if I have been spammed.

Samuel said...

"It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything."

Those words are frightening, and yet maybe they are true.

"Buddhism is the classic, "D.I.Y" or "Do it Yourself" motto because no amount of bowing, vowing or wowing is going to end your suffering. You and your karma are your own judge and savior."

What about Pure Land Buddhism?
And do you think illness is a result of unskillful karma from past lives.... sometimes it feels like it. And it's not necessarily guilt that I feel, but a sense of trying to accept what is happening and that it might not just be purely random genetics.

Chana said...

Great post! Buddhism is not about keeping rules or performing rituals. As the Buddha said "Be a lamp unto yourself". There is/are no God/gods judging our behavior. We already have the Buddha's mind, it is just a matter of letting it shine through. Trying to mix Oriental Buddhism with American life is like trying to mix oil and vinegar. I isn't going to work.

Shantivadin said...

Samuel's comment on Pure Land Buddhism got me thinking. Once you accept you are a Buddhist, the question always seems to arise: "But what kind of Buddhist am I?"

We all know there are the three main schools in Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (although some would argue that Vajrayana isn't seperate from Mahayana). And within these schools there are many differing traditions.

I would also argue that there is a new tradition emerging in the West: Secular Buddhism.
I have read many disparaging comments that Buddhism based in the materialism of the West just ain't Buddhism, but why can't it be Buddhism?

As Buddhism has moved from country to country it has adapted to the local belief system (especially so in Tibet), so why not adapt to the scientific physicalism of Western countries? If you read Stephen Batchelor you'd know what I'm talking about.

I consider myself a secular Buddhist and a Humanist (although in my view there is hardly a difference). I recognise there is much suffering and general dissatisfaction in the world. And I believe Western science and the therapuetic philosophy of Buddhism is a possible treatment of the ills of the world.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Shantivadin:

Nice! I agree.

Anonymous said...

I think in many ways, you do not take up Buddhism at all; it takes you up. That's not just clever phrasing, but pretty much how it seems to work. It either inspires you or it doesn't.

And Buddhism isn't about acquiring yet another identity. The effort to become some idea of what you think a Buddhist is usually just another journey of the ego.

And it isn't necessary. There are probably Buddhists who don't think themselves to be Buddhist at all. It's about the path you travel, not about the street sign.


Shantivadin said...

Thanks man. There are a few of us out there!

@Anonymous (Jack)
I agree, but identifying oneself, or even labeling oneself as such and such can make communication easier, finding appropriate information easier, and thus perhaps progress on the path easier too.
It's certainly not ideal, but what in this world is?

Lon Anderson said...

Thank you . . . I find this post and blog filled with immense, magnificent . . . wisdom!

Some people kept telling me what I had to believe to the point where I couldn't take it anymore, until one night I decided to just sit quiet with a cup of tea. During this silence is when I felt something step in, informing me, that . . . "Lon, you are . . . a Buddhist." This has made a significant difference in my life, listening to this inner calm, rather than the external words around me.

Lon Anderson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lon Anderson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
They call him James Ure said...

@Bonsai Doug...Great quote from the idiots guide to Buddhism. The label of Buddhist in many ways is nothing more than an auditory attachment.

@Lynda...You're so kind. Thank-you deeply. I'm glad to have actualized some thoughts for you. It's something I'm working through too, so I'm happy when others benefit as well.

@Sabio...I think you're right. We're on the same page. The checklist can indeed be useful, so long as it doesn't become the only barometer of our practice.

@Samuel...Very frightening indeed but oh so liberating. I think losing everything is speaking toward giving up on materialism as a means to long-term happiness.

Pure Land does indeed seem a bit unique in this regard but even in Pure Land one is required to do everything one can to improve this life. Amitabha from my little research into Pure Land is about saving us after we die but not about saving us from our suffering NOW. The NOW is what I'm focusing upon in this post.

As for illness, I think some of the seeds for current ailments do come from past actions. However, according to my school of Zen, most physical conditions are simply because of the human condition.

Zen believes that we are all diseased the minute we are born because we are already beginning the process of aging toward death.

@Chana...Thanks!! I agree with you about rituals and such. However, I have to disagree with you that American life and Buddhism can't mix. I am an American and a Buddhist. I have no problem balancing the two. It's just like with any culture. Any culture is going to have it's skillful and less skillful aspects.

@Shantivadin...I like Stephen Batchelor too and don't see that Buddhism and science are mutually exclusive.

@Jack...I agree that it takes up you because even before Buddhism becoming a part of one's life it is there. That's in part why I think I felt like I was returning home when I officially found Buddhism. And why I saw it as something I was in part already doing!!

@Lon Anderson...Thank-you. If it's wisdom then it's because of the Dharma shining through and guiding my deluded mind. Your tea moment is exactly how wisdom happens in our lives. I often find that the most profound wisdom comes not during a formal meditation but doing seemingly simply things with deep focus and mindfulness.

It loosens up our habitual mind, which enables deep understanding. That's exactly how much of the spiritual understanding happens in my life too; in those quiet moments.

DASNRG said...

Secular Buddhism? - yes indeed. Buddshism does work for Americans.
I don't necessarily believe in "a god" but i do recognize an extremely wise persons teaching and wisdom.
We in America see the same human suffering and experience the same sence of dis-satisfaction that Buddha saw. The teaching is universal.


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