Buddhism is a tricky thing. It can be a religion or a philosophy or both. It can be metaphysical or purely materialist. It can be laden with ceremony and tradition. Or not. Because of this ambiguity, it can sometimes be difficult to decide if one should or should not refer to oneself as a Buddhist. This is doubly true if you happen to come from a non-Buddhist, Western cultural milieu. I’ve been interested in Eastern thought and Buddhism in particular for many years. I first encountered Buddhist teachings when I was a teenager. My parents and I were staying at a hotel in Hilo, Hawaii. It was mid-afternoon, raining (as it often does in Hilo) and my parents were taking a nap. I had some time to kill but didn’t feel like braving the rain. On a whim, I looked in one of the drawers of the hotel room desk and found a Gideon’s Bible as well as The Teaching of Buddha. This is not uncommon in Hawaii. Some hotel rooms even have copies of the Book of Mormon. Curious, I sat down and read the Buddhist book. I was impressed by the gentle, compassionate nature of the teachings therein. A seed was definitely planted in my being, but it was one that would take a long time to sprout. Soon after I discovered Buddhism I stumbled onto Existentialism (thanks to a song by the Cure), and my philosophical excursions came to be dominated by Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche, with Gautama Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius sneaking in here or there. Plus, in college, I took several courses about East Asian history, cultural, and thought, so Buddhism never was completely off my radar. As I got older, I became involved in martial arts. I also found myself having to contend with the deaths of some people who I loved very much. It was around this point I started getting more serious about exploring Buddhism. I started reading the usual, classic authors—Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, Christmas Humphreys, Thomas Cleary, etc.—before moving on to contemporary Buddhist writers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and others. At this point in my life I essentially accept the Four Noble Truths and try to live with a spirit of loving compassion. I meditate, though probably not enough. I’m a vegan who refrains from harming other sentient beings whenever possible. But can I really call myself a Buddhist?
According to an article written by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche for Lion’s Roar, the answer is “Sorta.”