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.