Thursday, December 29, 2016

Philosophy Thursday: So... Am I a Buddhist or Not?

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.”
He writes
One is a Buddhist if he or she accepts the following four truths: 
All compounded things are impermanent. 
All emotions are pain. 
All things have no inherent existence. 
Nirvana is beyond concepts.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche further adds,
These four statements, spoken by the Buddha himself, are known as “the four seals.” Traditionally, seal means something like a hallmark that confirms authenticity. For the sake of simplicity and flow we will refer to these statements as both seals and "truths," not to be confused with Buddhism’s four noble truths, which pertain solely to aspects of suffering. Even though the four seals are believed to encompass all of Buddhism, people don’t seem to want to hear about them. Without further explanation they serve only to dampen spirits and fail to inspire further interest in many cases. The topic of conversation changes and that’s the end of it.
Incidentally, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche wrote a book called What Makes You Not a Buddhist that I cannot recommend highly enough. Unlike many Buddhist thinkers, he has a wry, rather sarcastic writing style that is both informative and entertaining. I can’t think of another book about Buddhism that I could describe as “bitchy.” 
 It’s not hard to see why “people don’t seem to want to hear about” the four seals. They aren’t the easiest things to accept. The “all emotions are pain” part especially is difficult for me, even though deep down I tend to believe it to be true. In fact, I more or less believe all four of those statements to be true. 
So why don’t I fully consider myself a Buddhist? Part of the reason is because, while I basically accept the truthfulness of the four seals on an intellectual level, I haven’t fully accepted them on what could be called (for better or for worse) a spiritual level. Attachment, especially to those I love, is still an issue for me. Death affects me greatly. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make me not a Buddhist, because it could be said that Buddhism is the process of accepting and coming to terms with those four seals. 
 Another reason I have some qualms about calling myself a Buddhist has to do with where I live: Hawaii. Thanks to the large Asian American population, about 8 percent of the state’s population identifies as Buddhist, making Hawaii the most Buddhist state in the U.S. For many, Buddhism is part of their cultural heritage. Local adherents participate in ceremonies and attend services at neighborhood temples. I don’t (though I may at some point). Frankly, Buddhism is not part of my cultural heritage, and I don’t really concern myself with the overtly metaphysical, religious side of Buddhist thought often found at temples. In his excellent book Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor makes a strong case that belief in the supernatural aspects (such as reincarnation)  of Buddhism is not really necessary. Still, the fact that so many Buddhists in my island home do belief to some extent in those aspects and do participate in religious ceremonies while I do not makes me feel somewhat hesitant to call myself a Buddhist. 
 All of this may smack of over thinking and being too nitpicky about words and their meanings. (See also my earlier post about martial arts nomenclature.) Of those charges I am no doubt incredibly guilty. Of course, I am a writer and editor, so being nitpicky about words and their meanings is part of my profession.
So how do I describe my beliefs? Often I just say I am inspired by Buddhist philosophy and try to live my life accordingly. Other times I might call myself a Zen Existentialist, partly because it’s a fairly accurate description and partly because it just sounds so cool. If I’m feeling playful I might just call myself “Buddhish.”

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