Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

Am I A Buddhist?


Occasionally people find the stuff I write interesting enough to comment.  One reader made some remarks yesterday that I found intriguing, and I thought I’d share his comment and my response with you.

The question of “Who Is A Buddhist” seems to occupy some folks’ minds quite a lot, since I see blog posts and articles about it all the time.  (BTW, don’t forget to visit my commentator’s blog at the link below; it’s really interesting.)  I don’t quite understand what all the fuss is about, and hadn’t given it a lot of thought.  However, this gentleman’s question caused me to toss the idea around a bit.

I’d be curious of your take on my religiosity or lack thereof. It seems we share much but that you may be a bit more tolerant. Today I did a post asking if I am a Buddhist? which toys with the concept of orthodoxy, atheism and such. I liked this post. Thanx. I will follow you for a while.

Thanks for writing. It is an honor to have a reader who obviously takes such questions very seriously. Let me say from the outset that my opinions are only my opinions, and that I make no claim to guru-hood, roshiosity, or lamary. That said, I do think about it some.

First of all, it seems to me that a Buddhist does at least some of the things that Buddhists do, and believes at least some of the things that Buddhists believe — otherwise, calling oneself that would be meaningless. However, the attempt to quantify the whole thing would seem to indicate a grasping and attachment to names and labels that is not consonant with Buddhism (at least in terms of basics).

Second, there are as many Buddhist sects as there are Christian or Muslim. That renders the concept of “buddhism” pretty vague. I am of the Zen pursuasion, since my lack of religious belief and desire to experience my path with as few trappings as possible give it the most appeal. My approach, therefore, is as far from that of one who practices in some of the more esoteric areas of Tibetan Buddhism (for example) as a Quaker is from a Eastern Orthodox Patriarch — or the Archbishop from an Indio practicing the Central American variety of Catholicism, and consulting the local brujo on the side. On the other hand, from the Zen point of view I’m a touch aberrant, because I do not practice with a sangha, although I have taken the Precepts and sit zazen.

Third, there is the issue of tradition v. adaptation of Buddhist beliefs to modern conditions. Many practitioners believe that practice includes deep involvement with and discussion of the suttas and other writings. I believe that this is a good thing, but that one must live in the modern world, and that rational people approach teachings with that in mind. I am also mindful of the fact that there is absolutely no reason to believe, as Brad Warner is fond of pointing out, that there weren’t plenty of bullshit artists back in those days — just as there are today — who wrote about things from their ivory towers or thrones of personal aggrandizement without having actually lived the kinds of lives about which they pontificated.

Non-attachment is not about discarding the things of this life. It is about living life from moment to moment, dealing with issues as they arise, and neither coloring them with personal preference nor clinging to the results out of unwillingness to change. It’s about staying in the present and allowing ourselves to see its reality, letting it flow past and being concerned only about those things that we can (and need to) influence. This requires flexibility, and involves some number of unpleasant experiences such as having to change our minds about things (to which we might prefer to cling, because we feel comfortable in old mental clothes that are well-worn and broken in). In short, Buddhism is about practical reality, change, and — of its essence — is non-doctrinal. We adopt certain guidelines for living, certain practices that make it easier to follow those guidelines, and then we live them in our lives.

Which brings up my fourth point. If we are comporting ourselves with compassion, tolerance, kindness toward others, willingness to learn and change, living a balanced life, and are forgiving, loving and know how to laugh at ourselves and live joyfully when life affords us the opportunity, it doesn’t make any difference what we call ourselves. We are following the Middle Path whether we know it or not. If we are not living that kind of life, we probably need to make the changes and practice the skills that make it possible, and it makes no difference what we call the result of that, either.

So, I have no opinion about whether or not you are a Buddhist, and I don’t think it’s anything you should be worrying about, either. Adopt some guidelines that look good to you. Try to live a good life. Don’t mess with folks if you can avoid it. If you can’t avoid it, do as little harm as possible.* Be compassionate. You have my permission to call it anything you want.

*In fact, that’s the whole thing, right there.

Author: Bill

Stumbling down the Middle Path, one day at a time.

10 thoughts on “Am I A Buddhist?

  1. Thank you very much for the discussion here!

    I have learned that ‘unquenchable desire’ for Truth is not a problem. Desire for impermanent things or attachment to changing forms can be painful and problematic, but wanting the truth does not and cannot cause pain.

    When what you want and what you have are the same thing, there is no suffering. When what we want is truth, we come to love/accept things just as they are and suffering decreases. This even includes falling in love with, or accepting the presence of desires, being ‘free in desire’. At least, this has been my experience, so far.

    In the words of Shunyata Emanuel Sorenson:

    “The Real Silence is not the absence of sound or talk,
    but comes from being ‘desire-free.’
    To be ‘desire-free’ does not mean that desires will not arise in you,
    but rather that you will not be driven by these desires.
    Although you will not necessarily be free OF desire,
    you can be free IN desire.

    And Jesus: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

    • I dunno. “Unquenchable desire” doesn’t sound like “…you will not be driven by these desires” to me. Just sayin’. Ain’t no gurus here.

      Really, this is a silly discussion about semantics. I abstain henceforth.

  2. Yes, the old unquenchable desire attachment. I am speaking of the desire that lead the Buddha for many years to search for the “truth” concerning life and death. So many people that have had “realization” started with this quest that completely absorbed them, to the point they did little else but try to answer the plaguing questions that haunted them. To become a seeker of truth, and abandon all else is what i am suggesting. Jesus is said to have expressed this way “Knock, and the door will be opened to you, seek and you will find”. Less than this, and you get what you pay for. 🙂

  3. I think maybe you misunderstood me. I agree with you:

    It may or may not be important to the individual, but that person’s actions are what matter to me, not what he calls himself.

    Your academic background also shares much with mine. Great to meet you.

    BTW, when you add a comment as an edit to my comment, I don’t get notified of the communication. May I suggest just adding another comment.

    Thanx again for your post — it is cool to find a kindred spirit.

    • OK. Glad to.

      I did misunderstand you. I replied around 12:30 AM, and I have to admit that my cognition becomes less skillful both as I get farther into my 7th decade and the evening gets later.

      In haste…

      BTW: I seem to have lost a comment somehow. The remarks below were addressed to someone else…if that’s not apparent from the context.

  4. I have been a monk ( Buddhist ) in a small monastery for about 24 years. Of course i have done a lot of reading on the history of religion, and Buddhist thought. I see that you have taken courses in comparative religion. Then i imagine that you would be familiar with the writings of Joseph Campbell. Buddhist history is fascinating, and filled with odd twists and turns. As you mentioned there are many ways to skin a cat, practice Buddhism. It is my understanding that throughout history and to the present day, if one is calling themselves a Buddhist, they are practicing religion. Religion is meant to make you a better person and save you from yourself. It does nothing to cut through spiritual materialism, of which is whole different game than religious observance. Throughout history groups of people have made saints and spiritual leaders out of dead people. I think that is what happened with the major religions that are followed today. Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, all declare the supremacy of the “founders” of their religion. I think this is a very important human dynamic. It places the responsibility of awakening to our original nature to an “other”. It doesn’t take zazen, chanting, or prayer to realize one’s original nature. It takes an unquenchable desire to to find it. The means of awakening is never consistent and yet we institutionalize the rituals that in fact do nothing to accommodate one’s awakening. In fact it places objects in the way to satisfy these longings. It is only in the rawness of being human that we can actually find our existence. Buddhism is a noun, and i agree with you that do one or nothing is a noun, everything is a temporary process. By identifying with a cult such as Buddhism or Christianity we just prolong the suffering of humankind. Not having all the answers is most beneficial, and the way to true compassion. It sounds like your on the right track! 🙂

    • Hello Chana,
      Regarding the religion issue, I believe there are a lot of Buddhists (I know several) who would disagree, myself among them. My understanding of religion is that it essentially deals with one’s relationship with a transcendent being, and attempts to explain certain mysteries thereby. Zen certainly doesn’t do that, but there are some other characteristics of religion — rituals, a certain hierarchy — that it does embrace, so perhaps it is a matter of semantics. I can only state that I do not practice Buddhism as religion, since I am ignostic, and I do not sit to become realized. I do so because, when I do not, I am less calm and less able to deal with daily life in a non-grasping manner.

      Unquenchable desire sounds like an attachment to me, but I have to figure that if you’re still in a monastery after 24 years it must be working for you. I suppose I should learn more Buddhist theory, but my practice keeps getting in the way of my studying.

      Thanks for writing, the compliment, and your insight.



  5. Thanks for the mention, Bill:

    First, I must say:

    It is important not to jump into the, “finger pointing at the moon” caveat when discussing what Buddhism means. Saying stuff like, “what is true is beyond words” can be such a conversation killer in mystical/meditative circles. Just like, “God’s thoughts are beyond our thoughts” is in Christian circles.

    So with that aside, let’s start with your statement, “Buddhists do, and believes at least some of the things that Buddhists believe believe — otherwise, calling oneself that would be meaningless.”

    Well, let’s see, in terms of practice:
    Many Soka Gakai folks (and other Amidha types) pray and chant but don’t meditate.
    Many Buddhists eat meat (kill to live) and drink alcohol (a precept no-no).

    In terms of Belief:
    Lots of Buddhists don’t believe in reincarnation.

    So I agree with you, it is a vague term when we look at it like that. Thus my post.

    My post question was actually rhetorical and my diagram was meant to help the rhetorical nature be obvious. For everyone is going to vary on what they check off on that list of doctrines and practices in my diagram.

    So, I see 3 type of answers to “What is a Buddhist?”

    (1) “A Buddhist is anyone who calls herself a Buddhist.” –> said by Anthropologists.

    (2) “A Buddhist is exactly what I say a Buddhist is” –> said by Dharma police. Proscriptive, sect cherishing Buddhists.

    (3) “If we are comporting ourselves with compassion, tolerance, kindness toward others, willingness to learn and change, living a balanced life, and are forgiving, loving and know how to laugh at ourselves and live joyfully when life affords us the opportunity, it doesn’t make any difference what we call ourselves.” —> said by you.

    I agree with #1 and #2. The motivations of #3 has always felt a bit unhealthy to me. Thus I wrote my post. Is that what you got from my post? Or was I too vague? Again, I think we largely agree. But I wager many Buddhists firmly disagree — I was trying to start that conversation.

    Hello again, Sabio,

    I am a complicated person who tries to keep his thoughts simple — with varying degrees of success. Thus, not having realized that the question was rhetorical, I tried to give you a simple opinion. I do not claim to have answers.

    Your transcription of my statement is not accurate. Regardless of that, “some” is the operative modifier in both clauses. Taking that into account, the statement stands as originally offered.

    Now let me be a bit more succinct.

    I don’t consider the question of whether someone else is or is not a Buddhist to be any business of mine whatever, nor do I consider it important. It may or may not be important to the individual, but that person’s actions are what matter to me, not what he calls himself. This is not avoiding the issue. As far as I am concerned, it is a non-issue.

    If people choose to disagree with me, again that is none of my business and I feel no need to engage. I did one semester of debate and almost died of boredom. Switched to Japanese.

    Incidentally, having majored in Anthropology with a minor in Comparative Religion (back in the Dark Ages), I guess I qualify under both 1 and 3. I’m good with that.



  6. Nice post. would be nice if we could get rid of alot of “labels” people like to put on things. I like your blog. It seems.. peacefull for the lack of a better word. Keep it up..

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