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Barbara O'Brien

A Little Bit Buddhist?

By July 7, 2011

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The Washington Post's On Faith page asks,

"Many in the West report that they incorporate Buddhist practices such as meditation or mindfulness into their own spiritual activities without necessarily adopting Buddhism as their religion. Can you practice Buddhism without becoming Buddhist?"

Oh, the weary task of defining terms.

The term "Buddhism" is an English language construction that, I am told, has no exact counterpart in any Asian language. Further, on the whole laypeople in Asia often don't become members of religious traditions, even when they observe them, in exactly the same way that westerners become members of, say, the Southern Baptist Convention or the Roman Catholic Church.  So, I don't know if the English phrase "becoming Buddhist" exactly applies to anyone.

However, the English language is what it is, so we have to make the best of things. "Becoming Buddhist," to me, means taking the refuges.Very simply, this is a commitment to the Buddha's teaching as one's spiritual path. The path, or magga in Pali, is the path to realization of enlightenment and Nirvana. People who have made this commitment are also called "stream enterers."

(I realize that parts of the Nichiren tradition no longer formally take the refuges, but I suspect a sincere commitment to daily daimoku and gongyo amounts to the same thing.)

It seems to me that a person who, for example, practices mindfulness meditation only for self-improvement reasons is not a Buddhist. If there is no commitment to the Three Jewels, it's not what we in English crudely call "Buddhism." (See also the dharma seals.)

That said, I have no quarrel with people borrowing whatever they like from Buddhism and weaving it into another religious tradition or regimen of  mental health hygiene. If it resonates with you, then go with it, and see where it takes you.

Comments
July 7, 2011 at 5:45 pm
(1) Daniel T. says:

When people ask me about my religion, I say that I am as Buddhist as the typical American is Christian. You know who I’m talking about, those millions who quickly proclaim their Christianity but only pray when they are in trouble and go to church on Christmas and Easter (if that.)

I guess it’s a mark against me, but I know the Noble Eightfold Path better than most Christian’s know their 10 commandments and I celebrate Vesak so I think I’m Buddhist enough. :-)

July 8, 2011 at 4:27 am
(2) eureka says:

World Buddhists, please please please save the ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist Republic:

CEYLON : A DIVIDED NATION, B H Farmer(1963):
Since those saddening days of 1958 Ceylon has had its share of trouble. The truth, though unpalatable may be to some, is simply that nobody unacceptable to the present Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has any chance of constitutional power in contemporary Ceylon.

Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka – Report of International Commission of Jurists 1981: ‘’The fate of the Tamils in Sri Lanka remains a matter of international concern”.

Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology: Implications for Politics and Conflict resolution in Sri Lanka, East-West Centre Policy Studies 40, Neil De Votta(2007): ‘’International human rights monitors must be stationed in Sri Lanka to ensure minorities are protected’’.

July 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm
(3) mickey says:

Thank you, eureka, for helping me understand your own lived culture. We can’t see it really. . . we see what we are told to see and be.
This is good information that many need to hear. “Love is the glory of Understanding” (a dreamed phrase).
peace, calm,
mickey

July 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm
(4) Dhammachick says:

I really REALLY like this piece Barbara. And I agree with it. My own personal view is, talk’s cheap. You can SAY you’re xyz all you want but if you don’t walk the talk, all you’re doing is paying lip service. I think when we focus too much on the labels, we squander the opportunity to actually PRACTISE. I’ve had to really struggle to overcome the labels issue myself. It wasn’t till I hit rock bottom emotionally and subconsciously just PRACTISED that I realised how inauthentic I’d been in claiming to be a Buddhist.

Now, I just try to follow the Eightfold Noble path and try to understand the Buddha’s teachings. If that makes me a Buddhist, that’s a bonus. If it doesn’t, it’s not going to stop me practising.

In metta,
Raven

July 8, 2011 at 4:39 am
(5) eureka says:

After the war is over, the occupation army has been building a lot of Buddha statues and Buddhist temples in the Northeast but prevent aid agents from reaching the Internally Displaced Persons(IDPs). ICRC has been ordered out of the Northeast – it has been helping the IDPs with basic essentials like roofs for shelterless people and artificial limbs for the war-ravaged, etc.
The army has also been forcing the IDPs to celebrate Wesak and supplied them with decorations.

World Buddhists, please give your voice to the voiceless.
(I am a refugee in a western world and am able to write this)

July 8, 2011 at 11:13 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

er and eureka — please don’t leave off-topic comments. If you want to take your discussion to the forum, I’ll be happy to call everyone’s attention to it.

July 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm
(7) Paul from Cambridge says:

As someone who practises mindfulness meditation for self-improvement (for some reason I don’t like the term “mental health hygiene” as if I were flossing my brains), I would find it very odd to be regarded by the Washington Post or anyone else as a Buddhist.

While I think that adding lots of labels to myself (“I am a humanist” or “I am a vegetarian” etc) is not in general likely to do me a lot of good, I think it is important that the terms themselves are well defined. Otherwise we end up with a lot of confusion, such as when vegetarians get upset when people expect them to eat fish. Or other vegetarians who do eat fish get upset when people tell them they are not vegetarians.

I did find that when I read “Buddhism without Beliefs” that I felt my views on life were very similar to those put forward in the book but I did not have the background to follow the arguments about what did or did not relate to traditional Buddhist teaching; and it did nothing to shake my conviction that I am definitely not a Buddhist.

Perhaps any confusion would be less if there were an accepted (hopefully non-perjorative) term for humanist meditating mental-health-hygiening persons such as myself, similar to fish-eating vegetarians being referred to as pescetarians?

July 8, 2011 at 4:44 am
(8) sr says:

No war, no peace: the denial of minority rights and justice in Sri Lanka, Report by Minority Rights Group International, 19 January 2011:
With the end of the conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE or ‘Tamil Tigers’) in 2009, normality has returned for much of the population of Sri Lanka. But for members of the country’s two main minority groups – Tamils and Muslims – living in the north and east of the country, harsh material conditions, economic marginalisation, and militarism remain prevalent. Drawing on interviews with activists, religious and political leaders, and ordinary people living in these areas of the country, MRG found a picture very much at odds with the official image of peace and prosperity following the end of armed conflict.

July 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm
(9) Paul from Cambridge says:

As someone who practises mindfulness meditation for self-improvement (for some reason I don’t like the term “mental health hygiene” as if I were flossing my brains), I would find it very odd to be regarded by the Washington Post or anyone else as a Buddhist.

While I think that adding lots of labels to myself (“I am a humanist” or “I am a vegetarian” etc) is not in general likely to do me a lot of good, I think it is important that the terms themselves are well defined. Otherwise we end up with a lot of confusion, such as when vegetarians get upset when people expect them to eat fish. Or other vegetarians who do eat fish get upset when people tell them they are not vegetarians.

I did find that when I read “Buddhism without Beliefs” that I felt my views on life were very similar to those put forward in the book but I did not have the background to follow the arguments about what did or did not relate to traditional Buddhist teaching; and it did nothing to shake my conviction that I am definitely not a Buddhist.

Perhaps any confusion would be less if there were an accepted (hopefully non-perjorative) term for humanist meditating mental-health-hygiening persons such as myself, similar to fish-eating vegetarians being referred to as pescetarians?

July 7, 2011 at 10:18 pm
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

I did find that when I read “Buddhism without Beliefs” that I felt my views on life were very similar to those put forward in the book but I did not have the background to follow the arguments about what did or did not relate to traditional Buddhist teaching; and it did nothing to shake my conviction that I am definitely not a Buddhist.

That’s fine. You don’t have to “be” anything, and in fact such talk of “being” this or that totally misses the point of dharma. However, the path is a lot more than just meditation. One of the rants I deliver here from time to time is that I have no problem with people borrowing whatever they find useful from Buddhist traditions, but if the Buddhist traditions are going to maintain any kind of integrity as they attempt to grow in the West, we need to make it clear that there is something more to the Buddha’s teaching than interchangeable bits and pieces.

July 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm
(11) Cenac says:

Getting to nirvana, Buddha claimed, was like crossing a river on a rickety raft. How we get to the otherside was unimportant. The point was to get there. It would be nice to think smiling little grannies, who tipped the milkman on time, could sail to the otherside without a doctrine or a gang of like-minded friends. Do you need Buddha? A famous Japanese Monk reached enlightenment while on the toilet; his years of meditation, koen study didn’t serve well. A Tibetan Monk says the three jewels must serve for the way: Buddha as an example, dharma as a path, sangha as a friend. This sweet brother eventually dis-robed, drank and died. Do we need to be buddhist to get to the other side? A rickety raft, full of leaks, maybe just as useful. The point is not to drown.

July 7, 2011 at 9:54 pm
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

Getting to nirvana, Buddha claimed, was like crossing a river on a rickety raft. How we get to the otherside was unimportant.

That is not what the Buddha taught at all. When you’ve reached the other shore the raft may no longer be needed, but while you’re in the water it is very important.

The Buddha spent more than 40 years teaching the path. He was very clear that realizing enlightenment required ceaseless practice and great dedication to discipline.

Your anecdotes are misunderstood. The monk who realized enlightenment while sitting on a toilet would not have done so without the years of practice that went before. It is very often the case that some physical act, such as hearing a bell or even stubbing one’s toe, triggers an insight experience, but only to those who are primed like a drawn bow.

No one is saying that Buddhism has a copyright on enlightenment, and if you want to turn away from the Buddha’s path and find your own, you are certainly free to do so. Write when you get there and let us know how it worked out. Until then — talk is easy.

July 8, 2011 at 2:01 am
(13) Rob says:

Great post (as always) Barbara. If I may add to your response to Cenac:

My teacher is fond of answering these challenges with “sure, but it’s harder.” You can realize the truth without zazen, “but it’s harder.” Or, you can sit zazen in a chair rather than a cushion, “but it’s harder.” At first I thought that was a too-convenient answer. Over the years I have been repeatedly disappointed (because I thought myself so clever) to see that she’s right.

One could rediscover the Buddha’s teachings, and hopefully without nearly starving themselves to death or leaving their family. Many poets and songwriters speak like Buddhas, so who is to say there is only one way? But why not study what the Buddha taught? Why not sit? If a person can’t muster that, they probably can’t handle life in a log cabin or in a cave in the Himalayas, either.

I recall reading of a certain handsome (IMHO) and famous young “Buddhist” guru who said that after 20 years of sitting he realized that zazen was a complete waste of time (“and here are three easy steps to Enlightenment!”). Perhaps he was “enlightened” using his own home-grown techniques, but were those 20 years a waste, really? I doubt it. That’s like saying “I worked my butt off, saved money, and lived like a pauper for 20 years, and never got anywhere. Then one day I looked in my bank account, and I was rich!” Well, duh…

My teacher also likes to paraphrase Uchiyama Roshi (I think…I hope…it was Uchiyama): “Zazen *is* useless, and will remain useless until you realize that zazen is useless.” I note that Uchiyama sat throughout his life, and my teacher still sits today. She’s not stupid or lazy, nor does she have oodles of time to kill. What’s up? :-)

July 7, 2011 at 8:04 pm
(14) Alan says:

My understanding from reading the Pali Canon that a stream enterer is someone who has had a “path moment” or direct experience of Nirvana.

A stream enterer may or may not have taken refuge.

July 7, 2011 at 10:21 pm
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

Alan — the term may be understood differently in different traditions.

July 7, 2011 at 8:59 pm
(16) Sam says:

I like this article. Not Needing to identify as anything seems to be the point. Needing to claim a role might be an indicator that awakening has not begun.
Good point about mindfulness meditation for personal gain. Although I would think will be better with more people giving it a try even for selfish reasons. Perhaps they start off practicing it for self improvement yet awaken during a present moment and gain insight.

July 7, 2011 at 11:42 pm
(17) ArizonaMildman says:

In my opinion, anyone would have to be rather brain deficient to NOT be able to find so much value in the teachings of Buddhism. How anyone who actually listened curiously could walk away from the blatantly positive message in the parables and gentle direct commands of the Buddha without being impressed or amazed is beyond me. I will defer to Thich Nh 3. at Hanh’s concept of Buddhist behavior in theThe Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought
Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

July 8, 2011 at 7:27 am
(18) SusanthaP says:

Thank you Barbara. This was just great.

July 8, 2011 at 12:42 pm
(19) Roger Upright says:

You dont have to be a Member of any organization,if you try to follow the path shown by the Buddha and take the precepts you become part of the Sangha. You dont need to pay a fee or hold a membership card, you just are.
Try not to be “something” or to get “Somewhere” with your practice, just go with it. I realize this sounds odd but it works.
Trying too hard to force anything just pushes it further away, be at ease with yourself. Above all enjoy it and dont suffer from trying too hard.
I read so much from people trying to over intellectualize Buddhism without taking time to have fun with it. Give a try you might just like it. Lots of Love from England.

July 9, 2011 at 7:36 am
(20) Cenac says:

Barbara,

I was being pertinaciously polysemic. As an anecdotalist, I was koan inspired:they did not prove logic but questioned it, even as ‘practice’.

I’m up river at the moment. If I get to the other side, I’ll throw you a rope.

July 9, 2011 at 8:52 am
(21) Barbara O'Brien says:

As an anecdotalist, I was koan inspired:they did not prove logic but questioned it, even as ‘practice’.

I have some experience with formal koan study with a Zen master. Your anecdote was no koan. Koans, like practice itself, are neither logical nor illogical, but are questions that force one to step outside of ordinary cognitive processes to “answer.”

In short, you are swimming the wrong way. You can’t get there with intellect.

July 9, 2011 at 1:21 pm
(22) cenac says:

Barbara,

You sound intelligent. You have a certain earthy approach to Buddhism.

There is something Soto Zen about your posts. Sadly, Koans were never my strong point. I’m still working on the sound of one hand clapping….

July 9, 2011 at 4:08 pm
(23) Dave says:

I read this peice that Barbara wrote on Buddhism. Very good perspetive on this…but perhaps another view is needed.

Being Buddhist (following, accepting, and taking refuge in Buddha and his teachings) mean something very different to me.

I take refuge in the Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha. These wonderful teachings (from all schools and traditions) provide us with a way to develop a loving and compassionate heart and mind to take out in this world and express it to all beings. This is so beautiful and wonderful…experiencing every mindful moment with wonder and awe.

So in the greatest sense of the word….we really are “Buddhist”—

A Lotus for you—A Buddha to be!!

Dave

July 9, 2011 at 6:16 pm
(24) Dave says:

To further comment on this commentary…

It also occurred to me that we share this heart with all living beings throughout space.

In most major schools of Buddhism…there is Dharma called the “Heart Sutra” and metta meditations.

These are Buddha’s teachings and dharma tools to assist us in creating this mindful heart. Metta meditations—mindfulness of Love and Compassion—

So Mindfulness and Buddhism are the same….but this is not really a subject of debate…because “Concepts can not exist in the realm of the ultimate.” These are only terms and are much meaningless. The true “Buddhist” relies in your loving heart and mind that extends to all beings…this is BUDDHA!!!

Thank you

A lotus for you—A Buddha to be!!!!

Dave

July 10, 2011 at 10:32 am
(25) cenac says:

Dave & Ryuei,

Metta Meditation, tranquility, simple kindness, is, in the end, ultimately,practically and aspirationally ‘Buddhist’.

A colourful butterfly attracts more than the sound of a barking dog.Thank you for the different perspectives.

July 10, 2011 at 2:53 am
(26) Ryuei says:

I am an ordained Nichiren Shu priest and I can tell you that Nichiren Buddhists do in fact take refuge in the Three Treasures and that we do regard (and experience) the chanting of Odaimoku as a form of concentration (shamatha) and as a way of opening ourselves to insight (vipashyana). In Japanese shamatha vipashyana is Shikan, and in Nichiren Shu there is even a passage from the writings of Chih-i called the Endon Shikan which means Perfect and Sudden Tranquility and Insight that we chant as a way of commemorating what our practice is really about.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Ryuei

July 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm
(27) Barbara O'Brien says:

Ryuei, thanks very much for clarifying that.

July 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm
(28) saddha says:

Actually, borrowing Buddhist teachings without attributing them to the Buddha is called Dhamma theft. It is the beginning of cults that failed to understand the truth of the refuge. Many people claim to be enlightened, but are not. They teach imperfect teachings that leave one in samsara, struggling. Buddha said it is not pOssible to be a stream enterer outside the teachings, it is true in my experience.

Take refuge, those who don’t have big egos.

July 10, 2011 at 9:46 pm
(29) Stuart says:

Hi Barbara, although I don’t really care a whole lot, I’m interested whether I’m buddhist or not. I sometimes wonder what I would say if someone asked. I usually decide that I would say “I try to follow the buddhist pathway”. Maybe you could give me your opinion?

I meditate everyday for 25 minutes and haven’t missed a day in 3 years. After each sitting I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Although I’m not a formal member of a Sangha, I consider my Sangha all sentient beings. I have recently started attending Zazen once a once with a local Zen group. I’m going to try to attend more often in the years to come, but at the moment my family life precludes greater attendence. I have found the eightfold path enormously helpful in my life and really believe it is a path to relief suffering. I try to follow it everyday although I still have a drink or too (as long as I don’t feel intoxicated) and eat meat.

What is your verdict?

July 10, 2011 at 10:11 pm
(30) Barbara O'Brien says:

What is your verdict?

There’s nothing to hang a label on.

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